By Greg Price
“And the second is opinion based, non-researched sensationalized reporting, starting with the local paper. Everything you have heard is based on opinions, except for the authority of council to enact bylaws.”
That was an excerpt taken from the Taber Police Service’s public information session on Friday on Community Standards Bylaw 4-2015 as one of the reasons why the backlash against the bylaw has gone all over the world, a sentiment echoed by others in the community apparently.
Well, in the famous words of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction… “ What’s the matter? Oh, you were finished? Well allow me to retort.”
The Taber Times reported on first reading of the bylaw in its Feb. 4 issue. The article outlined provisions found in the bylaw as provided in the agenda to the media. In the article, quotes were reported both for and against the bylaw in its current form at that council meeting involving councillors Randy Sparks, Joe Strojwas, Jack Brewin and Andrew Prokop along with Mayor Henk De Vlieger. Strojwas’s concerns include hefty fines for crimes usually involving youth (graffiti), inadequate definitions of some offences, or being more properly enforced in the Criminal Code.
A month passes and no requests for Kevin Bacon to dance Taberites to safety from their oppressors, nor are visions elicited that the Taber Police Service will soon be descending on Cornfest in their riot gear, handing out swearing tickets like Pez, sparked by the Taber Times.
On March 4 it is reported by the Taber Times that at council’s Feb. 23 meeting, third and final reading of Community Standards Bylaw 4-2015 is given where Strojwas once again is the sole dissenting councillor in a 6-1 vote, having previously mentioned in first reading he had Googled other community standards bylaws around the country and found their terms much more precise, having pleaded to send the bylaw back to the police commission to be retooled. Mayor Henk De Vlieger admits himself questions likely remain with the bylaw even as it is passed. “I’m in support,” said Mayor Henk De Vlieger. “I’m not saying this thing is perfect, but I think we should give it a chance and try it out, and let the police work with it. After a period of time, we might make some adjustments, but let’s see how it works.” The Taber Times ‘sensationalized’ headline to sell extra copies has the controversial wording of ‘Community Standards Bylaw passed’ splashed on the front page. Somewhere in the distance, Taber Times staff can be heard chasing down ambulances.
Guilty as charged as the Taber Police Service and some community members claim, the Taber Times editorial submission in its March 4 issue of ‘Vagueness in bylaw will lead to problems’ is opinion based. Scan a few millimetres above the headline and you will see the word ‘Opinion’ because yes, newspapers are allowed to have opinions just like councillor Joe Strojwas did in discussing the merits of the bylaw. Readers are allowed to have opinions, too, in our Letter to the Editor section. While many of the concerns the paper echoed at that time were similar to councillor Strojwas’, the Times did go off the beaten path in its own analysis.
The Times found it odd that town council had a problem with administration’s good intentions of safety concerns instituting a helmet policy for public skating infringing on people’s rights, but had no reason for pause in the Taber Police Service and Taber Police Commission’s good intentions with their bylaw possibly infringing on rights in its wording. Town council’s concern in revoking adminstration’s policy on helmets was because they did not want to become a Nanny State.
You go back even further in town council lore in 2011 and you see an idling bylaw idea get quashed after public consultation even though there were good intentions behind it as well with environmental and health concerns.
In short, Taber has proven people don’t like to be told whether to wear a helmet or not or if they can leave their car on, but the Times is ‘sensationalizing’ for thinking people in groups of three or more may object to being told to disperse or fined for loitering even though they have done nothing to cause a disturbance under the wide-open wording of the Community Standards Bylaw. Nowhere in the editorial does it read that the bylaw is a bad idea to help improve the town, but simply it has to be reworked given the sensitive nature of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “This is one bylaw that will almost certainly see some changes in tightening up some of its law enforcement parametres.’ the final line reads in the editorial. Yep there’s that Taber Times again… trying to sell newspapers and tear asunder the goodwill of the community. The Times continues the opinion that no matter how good intentioned a bylaw and enforcers are, laws are not drafted to protect ourselves from the best of us, but from the worst of us. Do not blame the local media for these ‘sensational’ concerns, blame the crooked cops that force legislators of human behaviour to be so precise in their wording so that people’s rights are not infringed upon too heavily.
But even at this point, no Memes of Kevin Bacon, no organized protests and no angry calls from the Taber Police Service, or Taber Police Commission or the community claiming sensationalism.
But then the daily papers pick up the story, some even thinly suggesting ownership — and relishing credit for the social media storm with editorialized headlines of ‘Embarrassing new bylaw.’
‘Online chatter – much of it ridiculing the town – exploded after Metro reported that Taber had adopted a bylaw that prohibits swearing in public, slaps a curfew on children and teenagers, and restricts public gatherings of three or more people’ noted one article. Funny, our town council reporter never saw a Metro reporter in Taber council chambers.
Legal experts from across the country chimed in on the glaring holes of the bylaw document (hmmmm… I remember reading that same concern elsewhere many days earlier). A bylaw document that a member of the Taber Police Commission admitted ‘no lawyers were involved in the police commission’s review and they didn’t discuss whether aspects of the bylaw would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.’
This issue does indeed go crazy, showing up across the world, across many prominent Canadian and U.S. news outlets as The Times is inundated with interview requests. Despite roughly a dozen requests for interviews over the three editorial staff, some of which offer financial compensation, none were fulfilled.
I can personally say one piqued my interest for a couple of minutes when I was being told what the tone the interview would take, but when the prominently-known media source in the province inquired if Mennonites were temporary foreign workers, I immediately ended the request.
Given the paycheques of weekly newspaper reporters, we certainly could have used the money, but we are in the business of reporting the news, not being it. Hardly an action of a newspaper trying to sensationalize the bylaw.
A member of the community who helped bring the bylaw to fruition calls The Times office angry about how the bylaw has gone viral, condemning the previous week’s editorial. We have a calm, rational discussion in which I offer to do a defence article of the bylaw and put it on the front page of the Taber Times on March 11 with a lot more prominence than the headline of when the bylaw was passed or the editorial. J.W. Schnarr’s column, while shooting from the hip a little more than the previous week’s editorial, basically comes to the same conclusion that the bylaw needs to be reworked.
“I’m very certain that members of the police and the police commission who drafted this bylaw, and those on council who later passed it, were not intentionally trying to be draconian in dealing with what they see as undesirable traits in the behaviour of the local populace. But by not clearly thinking this bylaw through, and by simply passing it in a half-formed state, they are opening the door on a lot of different, petty miseries on the local population. You never want your police to feel resented or hated” stated Schnarr’s column.
This led to the Taber Times’ web site story on the Taber Police Service’s public information session story, with a more in-depth version in this week’s print edition for anyone who does not have access to a computer. We also have the question-and-answer period of the public information session.
The Times are not editorializing their headlines, nor are we calling Taber a ‘sh*thole’ town as I have seen in some stories on the web. We are not printing sources from stories (Edmonton Journal) stating ‘My personal reaction was well, it’s Taber. I think it’s the culture of that place’ from a person at a civil liberties centre that has likely never even stepped foot in Taber other than maybe to gas up. The Taber Times has offered various view points on this issue both pro and con. The Taber Times has helped promote the town to some degree in every single issue with people or events making a difference. The Taber Times has written many articles showcasing the Taber Police Service as well.
The Taber Times is doing simply what it has always done, report news both good and bad. But I guess that’s the nature of how people view newspapers. Reading the court news is entertaining until you or one of your loved ones is in it. People love the opinion of the newspaper until it’s not theirs. People want more investigative journalism, until the microscope goes on them.
If we run only ‘feel good’ stories, people call us a rag with nothing ‘meaty’ in it. If we run too many ‘negative’ stories we are just profiting off the misery of a community. At this point people seem to have short memories of all the positive, uplifting stories The Times has printed over the years.
I guess the newspaper is like a coin where it’s either heads or tails in public perception. But if people are telling tales in the community that the Taber Times has ‘sensationalized’ Community Standards Bylaw 4-2015, it is not true.
I would further point out that if anyone is of the opinion that if the newspaper had not reported on this bylaw nor offered an opinion on it, none of this sensationalism would have happened, then you are encouraging an action (censorship) that is a common trait to all of the countries we are now jokingly being compared to.