The Ontario Civil Liberties Association released a position paper agreeing that there is institutional bias against pro-lifers on university campuses in the province. CNS photo

Civil liberties’ group onside with campus pro-lifers

By 
  • May 4, 2015

TORONTO - Pro-life groups at Ontario universities have gained an influential ally in their fight for free speech on campus.
The Ontario Civil Liberties Association (OCLA) released a position paper on April 29 opposing “the evident statutory and institutional bias that exists in Ontario against the free-expression rights of pro-life campaigners.”

The statement goes on to condemn Ontario universities’ suppression of student pro-life groups and events saying that Ontario courts are entertaining a loophole that universities are not governments to deny protection to these student groups.
The statement also condemns a statute in Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that excludes public access to information about abortions in the province.

Over the past several years, pro-life groups on campuses across Ontario and Canada have had their voices silenced by student unions which have, for the most part, come out in favour of abortion. Pro-life groups have been denied club status, forbidden from putting up displays and even had members face criminal charges for trying to spread their message.

Taylor Hyatt is a volunteer for Ottawa Against Abortion and a fourth-year student at Carleton University. Hyatt said her experience advocating for the pro-life cause on campus and in the public sphere present different challenges. She said she feels more protected advocating for pro-life on a sidewalk off campus than she did on campus.

“When you’re out on the streets, on public sidewalks, people are free to voice their displeasure with us… but regulations dealing with free speech on the sidewalk would be in our favour,” said Hyatt, former co-president of Carleton University’s disbanded pro-life group, Lifeline, which saw five of its members arrested, handcuffed and carted away in a police wagon in 2010 for trying to mount a pro-life exhibit on campus.

“In the public realm, you don’t have that institutional bias working against you… You don’t have somebody governing you and deeming what kind of speech is acceptable before you open your mouth.”

Hyatt said she is very pleased that an organization like OCLA recognizes the basic rights and freedoms of students, but there is still a lot of work to be done to open up campuses to freer speech.

In her experience representing pro-life groups at all levels of the Canadian public sphere, Carol Crosson said the OCLA’s statement is a first step.

“This position paper is a first step to persuading the groups that are at the table to stand up for democratic values,” said Crosson. “The values that we prize so highly in a democracy are transparency and free speech. I think what’s going on in Ontario, what the position paper spoke to, is those democratic values.”

As a constitutional lawyer, Crosson worked for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms for more than three years, providing pro bono legal representation for students and student groups fighting for their constitutional freedoms on campus. Crosson has opened her own practice last fall.

She is currently working with Ryerson University’s Students for Life in its appeal against the student union’s decision to deny the group club status. Crosson said Students for Life is still exploring its options as it moves forward as an unofficial student group on campus.

Carter Grant, vice-president of Students for Life, said that although it was denied official club status this year, the group is optimistic about its future on campus. Grant is hoping that OCLA’s statement will help Students for Life gain support as it applies for club status for a third time.

“There’s a new slate coming into the Ryerson executive (student union),” said Grant. “We’re optimistic that they could be more sympathetic to our cause, but we still need to actually decide if that’s the route we want to go on.”

Grant said the group has also gained support from the university’s president, Sheldon Levy. In an e-mail to the group, Levy said he was upset with the student union’s decision but encourages Students for Life to continue to be active on campus.

According to the National Campus Life Network, there are 19 campuses that have active pro-life groups in Ontario.

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