UAlberta Pro-Life is challenging a $17,500 security fee for future events, assessed by the University of Alberta, in court. Photo by Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

UAlberta Pro-Life punished for doing things right

By  ANDREW EHRKAMP, Canadian Catholic News
  • December 7, 2018

EDMONTON – A University of Alberta pro-life group says its right to freedom of expression has been violated by the imposition of a $17,500 security fee to stage events on campus.

Lawyers for UAlberta Pro-Life argued its case at the Alberta Court of Appeal on Nov. 28. The justices have reserved their decision.

Lawyer Jay Cameron told court the security fee is unjustified and unfairly targets UAlberta Pro-Life however “uncomfortable, disagreeable and unpopular” its views may be to others.

The case stems from an approved UAlberta Pro-Life event held in 2015 which encountered a protest from some University of Alberta students. The protesters attempted to obstruct the event by covering graphic images of aborted fetuses in the pro-life display.

UAlberta Pro-life filed a complaint with the U of A but, after an investigation, the university did not proceed with the complaint. A year later, UAlberta Pro Life asked permission to stage a similar event. The university agreed but attached a $17,500 fee to cover campus security costs.

Unable to afford the fee, the event was cancelled, said Amberlee Nicol, former president of UAlberta Pro-life, who has since graduated.

Nicol, a member of the pro-life National Campus Life Network, said the fee has had a chilling effect, which is why the group has taken its case to the province’s top court.

“My hope is that things go well and our group, as well as other groups that may be afraid to speak out, will be able to express their views peacefully and openly without being worried that someone else’s offence or someone else’s rule-breaking will take away their right to express themselves freely,” Nicol said outside court.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has taken up the legal fight on behalf of UAlberta Pro-Life.

“What did the appellants do wrong?” Cameron asked the court. “They obtained permission. They maintained reasonable composure despite the fact they were in front of protesters. You don’t have to agree with my client but they have a legitimate right to recognition by the university.”

Matthew Woodley, representing the University of Alberta, noted that the university has never denied  UAlberta Pro-Life permission to hold events. The U of A even released a statement at the time supporting the group’s right to free expression, he said.

Woodley said the university followed procedure when it consulted with campus security and determined the need for extra security, resulting in costs that must be borne by student groups hosting an extra-curricular event, not the university.

“The dean of students balanced the expression of views with the financial and security needs of the university,” Woodley said, noting that UAlberta Pro-Life wanted to have a large-scale, two-day event on campus. “The ideal comes with the requirement to pay the actual cost of it.”

Cameron said the U of A acted in bad faith when it failed to pursue a complaint by UAlberta Pro-Life against the counter-protesters, and instead imposed the security fee. He said that although the views of UAlberta Pro-Life may be unpopular, they still deserve unfettered recognition on campus and there is “no more appropriate place” to have the free flow of ideas and viewpoints.

“It’s essential that we maintain that atmosphere,” Cameron said.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which was granted intervenor status in the case, says charging a security fee of any amount is an infringement of the right to free expression.

“We don’t think the University of Alberta is trying to suppress a pro-life message,” said Nate Whitling, the Edmonton lawyer representing the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. However, “the security costs prohibit the event from occurring. It’s the imposition of any fee that we object to.”

Whitling noted that the B.C. Civil Liberties Association is a pro-choice group.

Nevertheless, in this case, Whitling said the U of A — acting as a government entity in this situation by providing post-secondary education — should apply any type of security fee fairly.

“If you pick and choose, then you’re suppressing ideas which are controversial. The effect is to trample out controversial ideas and dissent,” Whitling told court. “Government entities have the right to raise revenue as long as they do it in a content-neutral manner.”

(Grandin Media)

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