Cops Target The Coast Because of “Savage Love”

Offended by Column, Halifax Police Try To Undermine Halifax Newsweekly.

Apparently, the police in Halifax, Nova Scotia aren’t big fans of Dan Savage.

Their low regard for Savage’s work helps to explain why at least three representatives of the Halifax Regional Police Service [HRPS] contacted local businesses and urged them to withdraw advertising from The Coast, the local newsweekly that runs “Savage Love,” the syndicated sex advice column.

“This is from page 25 of a publication called The Coast,” read the message on a fax cover sheet referencing a copy of the “Savage Love” column which ran in The Coast’s June 11 issue. The missive — which was sent on June 15 to a Coast advertiser by HRPS Constable Larry Shortt, and which appeared on official HRPS stationery — concluded, “I don’t believe a company of your reputation should be supporting this.”

The paper’s staff first learned about the officers’ crusade when Volkswagen Canada — one of The Coast’s major advertisers — canceled its 16-week advertising contract. The move by Volkswagon was such big news that the city’s daily newspaper reported it with the headline: “Love bug makes Savage attack on Coast.”

After Volkswagen canceled, Coast staffers did some investigating.

“We quickly learned that [the officers] had been contacting various advertisers,” says the paper’s editor, Kyle Shaw. “… One [officer] tried to read the ‘Savage Love’ column over the phone to one of our advertisers. [The advertiser brushed it off and responded with the standard line: ‘If you don’t like it, then don’t read it.’ But the officer said [the advertiser] should pay attention because he was a cop.”

“The Coast, a 20,00-circulation newsweekly partially owned by former Montreal Mirror Publisher Catherine Salisbury, published the revelations in its June 25 issue. In the article, Peter Delefes — a business owner who is also a New Democratic Party member of the province’s Legislative Assembly — told the paper that his office was contacted twice by an officer: “He initially called as a constituent. But pretty early on in the conversation he identified himself as a police officer … When you identify yourself as a police officer, then it suggests a certain moral suasion, a certain pressure. He did … put some pressure on us [to pull advertising].”

Although the officers were caught wrongfully utilizing official department letterhead, HRPS officials have yet to determine if their actions violated the Police Act, the law governing bluecoat conduct.

According to HRPS spokesman Gary Martin, any statement or petition signed or circulated by a police official relating to the force must first get approved by the chief-of-police. Although Martin refused to speculate whether the officers’ actions violated police rules, he did say, “[Their conduct] has constituted enough questions that an internal investigation has started. Other than that I can’t comment.”

In a legal action initiated late last month, The Coast obtained an injunction preventing Shortt from contacting its advertisers to influence their advertising decisions.

According to Shaw, The Coast obtained only a single injunction because, “We only had direct evidence against [Shortt].” However, he adds that the policemen’s attorney assured Coast officials that all of the police officers involved “got the message” and that “none of them will be trying to get our advertisers to pull out of the Coast from now on.”

The paper is also considering whether to sue the officers for abuse of power and interference with economic relations.

This is not the first time “Savage Love” has caused problems for the Halifax newsweekly. Shaw says that in 1996 police investigated the paper on obscenity charges after some Haligonians were offended by Savage’s column. Charges were never filed because the HRPS Drug/Morality/Intelligence Section concluded the claims were unfounded.

By now it’s clear that the latest attack on “Savage Love” has backfired. According to Shaw, Volkswagen resumed its advertising in response to a “storm of controversy” and “cries of censorship”; none of the other businesses contacted by the police were persuaded to pull their advertising; and the publicity surrounding the event has helped to create a larger audience for the paper.

“They tried to censor us and all it has done is bring us more readers,” Shaw says. “Because of what they tried to do, more people now know about us than ever. For them [the officers], you’d think there would be a point of diminishing returns. If they just stopped talking about us, then maybe other people would stop paying so much attention.”