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Facing a flurry of backlash, the city of Hamilton has admitted it overstepped in classifying the anarchist circle-A as a “hate symbol.”

The controversy stems back to March, when a bylaw officer issued an order to the Tower, a local anarchist clubhouse in the downtown core, to remove an anarchist symbol from their front window.

The order followed a vandalism spree that took place on Locke Street South on March 3, during which a group of 30 or so masked individuals – self-proclaimed “ungovernables” – pelted rocks through the windows of local boutiques and restaurants, causing roughly $100,000 in damages. One person has been charged.

The Tower was targeted in retaliation - by what members of the clubhouse claim were alt-right groups - and when they covered up their broken windows, they spray-painted a big circle-A on the plywood.

After the order was issued in Mid-March to remove it, the city says the group complied within the requested time frame.

And while Mayor Fred Eisenberger told local media this week that he supported the designation of the circle-A as a hate symbol, the city now acknowledges it was an overstep.

“Stemming from the senseless acts of violence and vandalism in our city, my comments were a reaction that hate speech, and the acts of violence, have no place in the city of Hamilton,” Mr. Eisenberger said in a statement Thursday.

“Based on actions and initial statements provided by municipal staff, my earlier comments were based on the belief that city municipal bylaws had been applied appropriately. With additional information, it is clear the anarchy symbol is not a hate symbol and efforts are being undertaken to immediately update staff training.”

He also noted that staff will be sure to communicate with police in such cases in the future. In an e-mail statement Thursday, Hamilton Police clarified the service does not consider the anarchist circle-A to be a hate symbol.

City Councillor Matthew Green, who represents the downtown ward where the Tower is located, stressed that the original order was not a directive or motion from city council. He called it a case of “local government overreach” and a “complete misinterpretation of the law as it’s written.”

Mr. Green said he hopes this leads to a more “definitive conversation around what actually constitutes a hate crime.”

Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said Thursday that while the city’s mistake was recognized “relatively quickly,” it is important to be vigilant to make sure governments and law enforcement aren’t overstepping and policing expressive activity.

“There is a tendency, I think, to look at symbols that may be critical of government or critical of law enforcement and see if they can fit into some sort of category as prohibited speech,“ she said.

“It’s something we always need to be mindful of and watchful of and make sure that, just because expression is critical or unpleasant, it’s not subject to censorship.”

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