A pro-life group has won its appeal of a controversial $17,500 security fee implemented by the University of Alberta for staging events on campus. Lincoln Ho/Grandin Media

Campus pro-life group wins appeal over security fees

  • January 7, 2020

Alberta’s top court has sided with a pro-life group that claimed a security fee imposed by the University of Alberta violated its right to freedom of expression.

In a ruling that will be cheered by university pro-life groups across Canada, the Alberta Court of Appeal has ruled that universities are bound by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The decision handed down Jan. 6  marks the first time a Canadian court has ruled in effect that universities are an arm of the government and therefore bound by the Charter, according to legal experts.

“It’s very significant. This is an encouragement for anybody to say things on campus that may be unpopular, so long as it is lawful and peaceful,” said Jay Cameron, a lawyer representing UAlberta Pro-Life. 

“The courts saw that when students are speaking at a public university, there are constitutional rights implicated in that activity, and the university was improper in imposing that security fee. 

“Our constitutional rights exist whether our opinions are popular or in the minority, and our universities ought to function in the same way.”

The case dates back to 2015 pro-life demonstrations that included poster-sized displays of aborted fetuses. When counter-protesters responded with large banners obscuring any view of the anti-abortion posters, campus security was called on numerous occasions to keep the two groups separate.

When UAlberta Pro-Life applied to stage the event again in 2016, the university administration conceded that Pro-Life — a university-approved campus student group — had a right to protest but the group would have to pay security costs estimated at $17,500, with $9,000 required up front.

When the pro-life group argued the security fee denied them freedom of expression, university administrators said their decision was final and could not be appealed. 

In its ruling, the Appeal Court said that while the university was within its rights to limit free speech in certain circumstances, the UAlberta Pro-Life had a Charter-protected right to oppose the security fee.

“Recognizing the Charter as applicable to the exercise of freedom of expression by students on the campuses of the university is a visible reinforcement of the great honour system which is the Rule of Law,” said the court decision. 

University of British Columbia law professor Robert Danay tweeted that the decision was “a bit odd, particularly in deciding that the Charter applied.”

According to Danay, the decision to extend the Charter onto university campuses “seems inconsistent with the controlling jurisprudence of the SCC (Supreme Court of Canada).... The ramifications of this for university regulation seem potentially extensive.”

The judges ruled that allowing free expression and even bearing the costs associated with unpopular speech are inherent to the purpose of a university.

“Enlightenment is, arguably, the raison d’etre of a University,” the judges wrote. “The University emphasized its need to spend its money wisely and where most needed, and, indeed, that position was found very persuasive by the chambers judge. But cost alone cannot be decisive. Charter rights and freedoms all ‘cost money’.”

A spokesperson said the University of Alberta is reviewing the decision and declined further comment.

Cameron hopes the ruling will set a clear precedent for other universities across the country.

“The decision is meant to be a guide for the University of Alberta, and by implication other universities as well, in ensuring there are protections afforded for free speech on campus,” said Cameron, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which had taken up the legal fight on behalf of UAlberta Pro-Life.

“It’s a vindication for the pro-life group first of all, and the court of appeal sent a clear message that the University of Alberta made a mistake in this case. It remains to be seen what the university will say now when there is another application for an event of this nature.”

(With files from Canadian Catholic News/Grandin Media)

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