National Campus Life Network executive director Anastasia Pearse spreads the pro-life message on campus. Photo courtesy of NCLN

Campus pro-lifers take their fight to courts

  • February 12, 2016

TORONTO - Five pro-life student groups are before the courts fighting to have their voice heard on campus.

Students for Life at the University of Toronto Mississauga and Speak for the Weak at University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont., are the latest to file lawsuits against their school’s student unions for denying them club status due to their pro-life stance. They join UAlberta Pro-Life, Youth Protecting Youth at the University of Victoria and Toronto’s Ryerson University’s Students for Life, that have taken their student union to court.

With the support of the National Campus Life Network (NCLN) and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, students from the two newest groups are hoping to set a precedent for other pro-life student groups across the country.

“It’s the same story in a sense that we’ve had situations all across Canada where we get active, aggressive censorship of pro-life speech,” said John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre.

Carpay is representing Students for Life in the group’s court action against the University of Toronto Mississauga Student Union.

Students for Life claims that in denying the group’s request for renewed club status, the student union has violated its own mandate to protect students’ rights and failed to respect the group’s fundamental freedoms of expression and association.

“All along we had been trying to co-operate with them but they were just kind of refusing to deal with us in good faith,” said Diane Zettel, president of Students for Life. “What really kind of pushed us is when we attempted to change the constitution as per their requirement, they kind of prevented us from making those requirements when they interfered with our election.”

Zettel said when the group first applied for club status in 2014, it had no problem acquiring club status and running events throughout the school year. With the new school year came a new student union and a new set of rules. And, Zettel alleges, political interference.

The student union said the group was required to have a fourth executive member, as opposed to the three it previously had, so Zettel and her two fellow executives held an election meeting in November.

“It was required that a representative from the Clubs Committee be present,” she said. “At the meeting, when he got there, he showed up with five other people who had no previous affiliation with our club and didn’t seem to show any interest in our club. When it came to a vote, it caused us to not be able to make the changes.”

The motion to elect a fourth executive member to the club was rejected by a 5-4 vote.

Anastasia Pearse, NCLN executive director, said pro-life student groups across the country are running into interference no other clubs face.

“Quite often what happens when a pro-life club submits their club application is they are just called in for further questioning... they go through treatments that no other club is expected to go through,” said Pearse. “So we try to show the student unions that these clubs abide by every single policy that is required for club status. As a pro-life club we don’t expect special status.”

Many student unions are also members of the the Canadian Federation of Students. In 2008, the organization passed a motion encouraging its members to support pro-choice views.

“Some student unions do have specific policies relating to a woman’s right to choose and because of those specific policies, they see a pro-life club as contravening that,” said Pearse. “But that’s why we need clubs on campus so that we can make sure that all views and opinions are shared on the campus.”

Pearse is working with the Justice Centre to support the most recent lawsuit filed by Speak for the Weak at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

“It was quite frustrating because we were promised a discussion and we were very much looking forward to clarifying any confusion that they had,” said Christian Nagarro, Speak for the Weak president. “But they said that each of them have reviewed the application thoroughly and that there was no need for clarification.”

On Jan. 28, Nagarro and six fellow students filed suit against the Student Association at Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Nagarro said the NCLN and the Justice Centre has helped the group every step of the way and is confident in its own case and he said this will bring more attention to the issue on campus, as well as other campuses in Canada.

“Myself and my executives are aware of the commitment that this (legal battle) will take and we’re 100-per-cent willing to do whatever it takes for our cause,” said Nagarro.

Pearse said that all five pro-life groups before the courts are very passionate for their cause.

“The results of these cases are critical because they have implications for campuses across the country,” said Pearse. “But also really the bottom line is, the results of these cases can help us save more lives. What we want is to be able to share the pro-life message as much as possible in these campuses.”

The groups are currently waiting to set court dates. UAlberta Pro-Life filed a court action against the University of Alberta on Sept. 24 and is also waiting for a court date.

Youth Protecting Youth in Victoria presented its arguments to the B.C. Court of Appeal on Feb. 5 and 6, and is waiting on a court decision, as is Students for Life at Ryerson University which was before an Ontario Superior Court justice on Dec. 18.

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