It was standing room only at the University of Victoria on Oct. 21, when anti-abortion activist Stephanie Gray visited from Calgary to debate distinguished medical ethicist Eike-Henner Kluge. Gray and Kluge duked it out twice that day, to accommodate those who couldn’t fit into the 200-seat room for round one. Not one to disappoint, Gray, who is executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, employed the tactics that make her so controversial: she compared abortion to the Holocaust and showed a video of an abortion.
Yet compared to some of the activism on Canadian campuses, the debate was mild, the audience civil, even polite. Periodically, when Gray began speaking, a group of students would hold up signs sporting slogans like “My body is not up for debate.” And there were scattered heckles when she accused pro-choicers of believing that “a woman has the right to directly and intentionally dismember and decapitate and disembowel her child.” But she wasn’t accosted, yelled at, or in any way prevented from speaking her mind. Nevertheless, the debate and other events organized by UVic’s pro-life club, called Youth Protecting Youth (YPY), are shaping up to be the basis of a legal battle over free speech that could change the way student unions and even universities operate.
The spat began in October 2008 when the university’s students’ society refused to give YPY the same meagre funding all UVic student clubs receive. Clubs approved by a committee are entitled to $232 each year and such perks as banner supplies and free room bookings. Upon review in 2009, the committee approved YPY. But the students’ society board stepped in and once again revoked the funding. In an Oct. 5 meeting, the society’s directors accused YPY of “harassing” female students (although they mentioned no specifics). Director Tracey Ho summed up the society’s position by saying, “No one should debate my rights over my own body.”
Ho’s sentiment is particularly troubling when it is put into force at universities, which should be bastions of intellectual freedom and open debate, says John Dixon, director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. So when YPY approached the association to complain of discrimination, it was happy to help. “This is a freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression case,” Dixon says.
The UVic students’ society, on the other hand, maintains that events such as the Gray-Kluge debate go beyond the limits of free expression. “Freedom of speech of course can happen, but not when it’s harassing or oppressing other people,” says Veronica Harrison, the society’s chairperson. Dixon’s response: “There used to be people who would run up to women outside abortion clinics with video cameras and say: ‘We’re going to show your priests, mothers, teachers, classmates.’ That’s harassment. I don’t see how you can be harassed by somebody giving a speech—if you don’t want to hear it, don’t go.”
Harrison maintains that the students’ society is an independent body that had every right to deny YPY funding. And that’s exactly what Dixon hopes this case will change. He sees in the scuffle an opportunity to reverse a long-standing legal precedent set by the Supreme Court that universities are not subject to the same Charter of Rights and Freedoms strictures as government entities are. But a number of recent decisions suggests that the sands are shifting, and Dixon believes that, if tested in court, universities will be brought under the Charter. Since student union representatives sit on university governance boards, he hopes they will be seen as creatures intrinsic to the university, therefore also subject to the Charter.
Dixon will likely find a legal sparring partner in the UVic students’ society. In May last year, the Canadian Federation of Students—representing 500,000 students from 80 campuses—passed a motion encouraging members (including the UVic society) to deny resources and club status to “anti-choice organizations” and promising financial support should that result in legal action. But conflict over whether student unions have the right to shut down anti-abortion clubs has long simmered on campuses across the country. The student association at Capilano University was ordered to grant status to a pro-life club after the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal found pro-life students had been victims of discrimination. Student unions at McGill, Guelph, Lakehead, York, Carleton and other universities have also attempted to shut clubs down. And in 2008, the University of Calgary charged student members of a pro-life club with trespassing after they refused to remove graphic images from campus.
So far, Dixon hasn’t received any response to letters sent to the CFS, the UVic students’ society or the university itself, and he warns that the BCCLA doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. “My strong advice would be not to invite one of the most energetic, able and successful litigators in Canada to court,” he says, laughing and pointing out that the dispute boils down to $232. “Just write the cheque!”
Editor’s note: This post has been updated