If a university staff member is arrested at a protest, should students be expected to pay for her defence? That question is being hotly debated at the University of Toronto, where students are being asked to contribute to a legal defence fund for Angela Regnier, the executive director of the U of T Students’ Union (UTSU).
Regnier was arrested while participating in a Tamil demonstration in Toronto in May. She was released on bail and after appearing in court three times, the charges were withdrawn. Now she’s trying to cover her legal bills, and UTSU president Sandy Hudson has been appealing to local student unions for donations. Hudson says the money will “support the constitutional rights of individuals to demonstrate peacefully and participate in civil disobedience.”
In an email to the U of T student newspaper the Varsity, Hudson wrote that the union should support Regnier because “anyone can be randomly targeted and arrested at any demonstration.” Several student unions and other organizations have made funds available, and the U of T Mississauga Students’ Union is expected to donate $1,000.
However, the assumption that all students support Regnier’s actions has angered some, especially since she is a paid student union staff member. “I expect my student union to work in my interest,” says Maria Robson, a fourth-year student, noting that the money originally came from student membership fees. “I’m greatly disappointed when it uses students’ money for advocacy or other purposes that don’t benefit us.” Robson adds that student money is not for “legal battles that have nothing to do with us.”
But Regnier counters that it is common for labour and union movements to establish legal defence funds. This fall, for example, the University of Guelph Central Student Association expects to set up a fund for activists pursuing indigenous land rights in Caledonia, Ont. There is a “shared concern for our constitutional right to demonstrate and the right to a fair defence,” she says.