Free speech, respect for others must be encouraged

  • February 19, 2010
If there is one subject that provokes more complaints of media bias than religion, it would probably be abortion. From the time of the legalization debates in the 1960s, most pro-life groups have believed their message has been suppressed or misrepresented, and I would not be surprised if some pro-choice groups have felt the same way.

But one thing about the debate that has changed is the addition of a free-speech component to the moral and religious issues.

For several years, pro-life groups applying for club status on university campuses have faced scrutiny by student associations and many have had status denied or suspended. Clubs at Lakehead, York, Carleton, Memorial, McGill, Guelph, Calgary, Victoria and others have all had their status challenged; some have been successful in regaining it, but some have not. The club status of Choose Life was reinstated at McGill Feb. 10 after a heated debate and vote, while the University of Victoria’s Youth Protecting Youth had its funding denied — again — on Feb. 5.

Free speech has entered the debate largely because of two factors: The Canadian Federation of Students has adopted a policy encouraging (but not requiring) member associations to embrace a pro-choice position on abortion, while some pro-life clubs support the use of graphic images in their information campaigns. Probably the best known is the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), which attempts to draw parallels between abortion and other atrocities such as the Holocaust. Last spring at the University of Calgary, the insistence on continuing to use a GAP display, despite numerous warnings from administration, led to trespassing charges, which were later stayed.

While the denial of a few hundred dollars and the use of meeting rooms is hardly the biggest assault on free speech imaginable, there is indeed a free speech issue involved. It’s particularly disturbing to see speech curtailed at universities, where debate and dialogue should be encouraged.

Most news coverage I’ve seen about denials of club status and GAP debates have presented both sides, though it’s likely that media bias is a factor in whether such stories get covered. The Internet has, in any case, made it possible for all parties to present their views in a similar format. If any proof is needed of the anti-free-speech philosophy of the pro-choice lobby, Joyce Arthur of Pro-Choice Action Network gave it richly in a recent speech at the University of Victoria.

“At the Pro-Choice Action Network, we frequently get calls or e-mails from women complaining about an anti-choice display they’ve seen, or a protest or just a billboard or a TV ad advertising those anti-choice counseling agencies. These women are truly upset, angry. Because they are being disrespected, and their rights are being attacked. Not just their rights, but their privacy, their integrity, their judgment, their morals, their very humanity, really. Although it may seem extreme to say this, I believe that allowing an anti-choice group to organize and have public displays on campus, even if they don’t use those offensive gory pictures, is comparable to allowing a KKK group to organize and display on campus.”

Arthur is prepared to use the race card to limit free speech by implying pro-lifers be added to the unborn on her list of sub-humans she would prefer to de-legitimize. At the very least, equating a pro-life philosophy with racism shows a near total lack of understanding of the culture of life, with its emphasis on respect for all life, from conception to natural death.

For the record, at the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada we frequently get calls or e-mails from women and men complaining about an anti-Catholic display they’ve seen, or a protest (e.g., against Catholic schools), or just a billboard or other ad promoting movies and TV shows that flaunt defiance to Christian teaching. The difference between these callers and Arthur’s friends is that they understand that such things can be challenged, not banned. We can and should contact editors, producers and advertisers to let them know they’ve offended their Christian viewers and remind them that many will take their business elsewhere as a result. But at the end of the day censorship and democracy are incompatible. 

Most of us learned this simply by growing up in a society that encouraged both free speech and respect for others. For some of us, this was reinforced by attending universities where it was normal to have both sides of controversial questions presented. If this norm is not restored, we may be creating a world where there’s better balance online than there is on campus.

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