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Dublin City Council has received 30 complaints about referendum posters

But councils, the Gardaí, and the advertising authority don’t have powers to take down inaccurate or offensive posters.

1920 8th Amendment posters_90541917 Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

DUBLIN CITY COUNCIL has received 30 complaints about posters related to the Eighth Amendment referendum.

The majority of the complaints made are about the content of the posters, but authorities can only remove a poster if its hung incorrectly or doesn’t have its publisher’s name and address on it. They do not have any power to control what appears across the signs.

Over the past two weeks, posters have been erected in cities and towns urging the public to vote Yes or No on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which prevents abortions in Ireland (except in very limited circumstances).

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, DCC said that the majority of complaints it’s received were about the content of the posters. It added:

Dublin City Council cannot regulate the content of referendum posters, as it is not within the scope of our statutory powers under the relevant legislation to remove posters based on perceived offensive content.

Other complaints were about the reported absence of the details of the printer and publisher on the posters, the general proliferation of the posters, and posters erected that are hazardous to road users or pedestrians.

“A small number of posters, which were obstructing traffic signs, have been removed,” it said.

Earlier this week, a video circulated on social media of a man in Limerick city ripping down ‘Vote Yes’ posters erected by the pro-choice group Rosa.

In recent days, attention has also been drawn towards a Save the 8th referendum poster that asks for the reader’s feelings about abortion up to six months of pregnancy.

Complainants have said that the poster is misleading as the question being posed in the upcoming referendum is about abortion without restriction up to three months of pregnancy (12 weeks), not six (24 weeks).

unnamed TheJournal.ie received a number of contacts from people complaining about the existence of this poster Source: Sent in by a Dublin reader.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, Save the 8th spokesperson John McGuirk said that he wasn’t aware of any complaints related to this poster specifically.

“We do receive occasional phone calls from members of the public who are voting yes who wish to make their views known – but no specific complaints about this poster have been brought to my attention.”

A referendum on whether to retain or repeal the Eighth Amendment (or Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution) is to take place next month on 25 May.

The Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment recommended that terminations should be allowed up to 12 weeks “with no restriction as to the reason, provided that it is availed of through a GP-led service delivered in a clinical context”.

In relation to concerns about the six-months reference, McGuirk quotes the government’s draft legislation (Head 4, specifically) which would become law in the event of a repeal vote:

“It shall be lawful to carry out a termination of pregnancy in accordance with this Head where two medical practitioners certify that, in their reasonable opinion formed in good faith:

(a) there is a risk to the life of, or of serious harm to the health of, the pregnant woman,
(b) the foetus has not reached viability, and
(c) it is appropriate to carry out the termination of pregnancy in order to avert that risk.

Speaking last week, Dr Peter Boylan and Health Minister Simon Harris said that references to “viability” was to stop the spread of misinformation that, in the event of a repeal vote, abortion would be allowed right up to the end of a pregnancy.

Boylan said: “If we have legislation, then we can reduce the time limit by which an abortion would be legal [it's been reduced to 12 weeks in the draft legislation].

“In other words, that foetal viability will be the measure of, beyond which, babies will be delivered and not aborted.”

The part of the draft legislation quoted in the poster (Head 4) would only cover the exceptional circumstances of serious risk to the life or health of the woman, and also states that “nothing in this Head shall affect the operation of Head 7″.

Draft legislation Source: Draft legislation

Head 7 relates to early pregnancy (i.e. pregnancies up to 12 weeks). It states:

“It shall be lawful to carry out a termination of pregnancy in accordance with this Head where a medical practitioner certifies, that in his or her reasonable opinion formed in good faith, the pregnancy concerned has not exceeded 12 weeks of pregnancy.”

Although Dublin City Council says it has not collated figures on complaints about this exact poster, it says that they have received a number of complaints about referendum posters.

“We do not have details about how many complaints related to this specific poster.”

There have also been no official complaints made about the posters which were taken down in Limerick.

Rosa spokesperson Rita Harrold said they would not go to gardaí with a complaint, as it would create a “divisive” atmosphere and there has already been “enough complaining” from groups about posters being taken down.

“Nobody should take any posters down,” she said, adding that signs being defaced was a “consistent problem”.

The rules around removing posters

Dublin City Council is not the only local authority to have removed a small number of referendum posters in the past fortnight, but again not because of the content as they have no powers to take down posters that are reported to be misleading, factually inaccurate or offensive.

The Gardaí, the Referendum Commission and the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland have also said that the content of referendum posters falls outside of their remit.

Local authorities can only remove posters if they are found to have been erected in breach of any regulations that do exist.

  • A poster can be removed if it is deemed “that it is in the interests of amenity or of the environment of an area to do so”.
  • The name and address of the printer must also be on all posters. If the name and address are omitted, the sign is treated as litter and can be taken down by the council.

Other city councils have also received complaints for posters about the referendum.

A spokesperson for Galway City Council told TheJournal.ie that “as of Monday afternoon, our environment section had received five miscellaneous complaints about posters erected around the city for the May 25 referendum”.

They mainly relate to the positioning/placing of posters, i.e. not secured properly or not at a sufficient height.

Cork City Council said that it had received three complaints about referendum posters, and had removed one poster because it was “too low and posed a danger to pedestrians”.

1876 8th Amendment posters_90541918 Source: Leah Farrell

What if posters are offensive?

In the event that a person finds a poster to be obscene or offensive, they can contact the Gardaí – but even then there’s difficulty proving that offence was intended.

Under Section 7 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1994:

It shall be an offence for any person in a public place to distribute or display any writing, sign or visible representation which is threatening, abusive, insulting or obscene with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or being reckless as to whether a breach of the peace may be occasioned.

“A person who is guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €500 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to both.”

The wording of that section has proven difficult for prosecution, legal sources say, because it is difficult to prove that there is an intent to breach the peace or that the person has been reckless in that regard.

Garda sources say that they can be reluctant to act on the section for that reason and “usually try to move a protest on”.

Gardaí do not remove posters from lamposts.

9398 Anti Abortion Poster_90541235 Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

This limited regulation of posters and public ads (like billboards) isn’t a problem in most cases because, as one ad industry worker says, most obscene ads would be rooted out in the submission process.

“If someone came to me and wanted to put something that was properly graphic, we probably would be hesitant to run it. Obviously you have some edgier advertisers who chance their arm with ads, but anything that offensive or graphic would be refused early on.

The ad companies have their names on the boards, like. They wouldn’t want to be involved in something gratuitous.

What if a poster is wrong or misleading?

There is a Referendum Commission, but in the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum it distanced itself from posters.

The organisation said the content of posters on both sides is entirely “up to the individual group” who makes them, adding: “We have no function in relation to the posters.”

If someone has a complaint to make about a poster, they may contact the referendum commission. However, their primary function is to explain the wording on the ballot paper and encourage people to register to vote.

IMG-20180414-WA0012

The Advertising Standards Agency of Ireland (ASAI) is the body responsible for commercial advertising in Ireland, which means it would only cover ads which have been paid for – that doesn’t include referendum posters.

It said that its objective is to ensure that all commercial marketing communications are “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

“It will adjudicate on the basis of the likely effect on consumers, when taken as a whole or in context, not the advertiser’s intention.

The ASAI code further sets out that ads “should not mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise”.

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About the author:

Paul Hosford and Gráinne Ní Aodha

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