Campus pro-life battles are about free speech

  • December 11, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Tensions on Canadian university campuses have intensified this year as pro-life clubs continued fighting for status while others were denied funding.

Yet, while only half a dozen of the 40 or more pro-life clubs on campuses across Canada have butted heads with their student unions, many are worried that the silencing of pro-life speech has expanded to a threat against freedom of speech in general.

“What’s especially alarming is that what is happening on university campuses goes against the nature of what a university campus should be about, and that is it’s the marketplace of ideas,” said Stephanie Gray, co-founder and the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. “The expression of differing opinions should be especially encouraged in that environment. That way people open their minds, evaluate arguments and examine if good evidence is given to back up claims.”

Gray is former president of a successful pro-life club at the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia. A pro-life club on the Okanagan campus has been denied status since 2006 after displaying controversial images on campus from the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP). Since then, the Okanagan club has appealed to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on both political and religious grounds, losing its second appeal this past November and costing the student union an estimated $45,000 in legal fees.

The battles are going on nationwide. Vancouver’s Capilano College’s club Heartbeat, also battling for status since 2006, won the right to exist as a campus club through a human rights complaint that was ruled in its favour in May. And although a club at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, which lost its status in 2007, was not officially reinstated, the pro-life club at Carleton University in Ottawa won its right to status last year after a shorter battle that did not go to court. And in November, Campus Pro-Life at the University of Calgary successfully held a GAP display despite threats from the university of possible suspension, expulsion or arrest.

“Pro-lifers have to show themselves to not back down, to be uncompromising with their message, and to be determined to fight the injustice,” Gray told The Catholic Register. “As I look at the example from the University of Calgary I would very much describe it as a contest of wills — the will of the students to be a voice for the voiceless and the will of the university to suppress pro-life speech. Thankfully the students’ will was stronger; the students’ will won.”

All of the student unions which have actively opposed pro-life clubs are supported by the Canadian Federation of Students, which promised in 2008 to back such unions in their fights against “anti-abortion” groups.

Gray said this is most troubling for pro-life students who are automatically members of the CFS and pay a fee.

“My response is if you don’t want pro-life clubs, don’t force pro-life students to be members of your society,” she said.

Most recently, a pro-life club at the University of Victoria lost its right to funding, while one at the University of Guelph is still waiting for a tribunal that will determine its status.

Meanwhile, the pro-life club at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, which lost its status in January, encountered new school legislation this fall that could silence it further — and possibly others too. The Lakehead student union voted in November to impose various restrictions on clubs of a religious or political nature, including one that says club members cannot express beliefs or practices to anyone who does not give them consent to do so outside of club meetings.

Like a June vote at York University to deny funding to any clubs that hold “anti-choice” views, this one was also done during the summer break when most students are no longer on campus, drawing criticisms that the unions should have consulted with the student body more extensively. At York, no clubs have lost status — possibly because the regular activities of the university were halted by a strike 

Theresa Gilbert, executive director of National Campus Life Network (NCLN), an organization providing informational support to campus pro-life clubs in Canada, said the student unions have been able to “get away with things under the rug” which poses concern. Pro-life students, however, should not feel defeated.

“Certainly we do want people to be aware of the clubs that are being opposed but that there are a lot of good things happening and (many) universities are being welcoming of the dialogue on the life issues,” she said.

Gilbert added that any clubs planning events or students trying to start up a pro-life club should contact her office.

“Any clubs that are going to apply for status should be very aware of their student unions’ policies,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt to know what the university policies are as well.” She added that students should be  confident in their position and realize they are “not alone and will be supported.”

NCLN’s September symposium for pro-life clubs drew record numbers to Toronto, causing Gilbert to close registration a week before the event — something that has never happened before. A total of 54 students from 31 different campuses attended.

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