UCalgary kicked off my list of potential grad schools

University charges students with trespassing after graphic abortion display


The University of Calgary has taken the war against politically incorrect opinions on university campuses to a whole new level.

The University is in the process of charging students with trepassing after the student set up a outdoor display containing graphic images of aborted fetuses.

The group Campus Pro-Life put up a display of the Genocide Awareness Project in a central area of the campus back in November. They did so despite being told by university administration they were not welcome to set-up the display in such a way that unsuspecting passers-by would be exposed to the images. The university also warned the students that legal consequences could follow if they defied the order. Regardless, the students set up their display with the pictures clearly visible to onlookers.

I not a supporter of the display and, frankly, find the equating of abortion to the Holocaust offensive. However, the university administration has a responsibility to tolerate student expression of such opinions. The fact that the university is seeking court convictions of these students shows a willingness to crush unpopular student expression that is unbecoming of an institution dedicated to the ideas of the academy.

The University of Calgary has been steadly climbing in reputation in the last couple of years and has done a wonderful job in creating good graduate programs that are nationally competitive. It was one of the universities I was considering if I decided to continue in political science for graduate studies.  An institution that does not cherish free expression, especially when that expression is difficult to tolerate, is an institution that ultimately limits intellectual pursuits. Why would I attend an institution that limits debate?

I’m not disputing that the university has a right to ask Campus Pro-Life to display their pictures in a less intrusive way; that is an expression of an idea. However, it should not be able to use the coercive power of the state against a way of expressing an idea. The university says it doesn’t mind the expression of the idea on the campus, only the method of expression.

Universities shouldn’t allow one method of expression for ideas it agrees with and then deny that same method of expression to an idea it disapproves of.


UCalgary kicked off my list of potential grad schools

  1. The students were warned and should accept the consequences of their actions. It is not appropriate to display graphic images of any kind in public places – this is not a matter of free expression, but of the limits of how opinions should be expressed. How were the images obtained and with whose consent? Do they accurately reflect what is claimed about them? If the students were handing out pamphlets denying the Holocaust or distributing white supremecist propaganda, would you defend their right to do so *on campus*?

    Brazenly offensive materials – that are designed to offend, shock, and manipulate – are not inherent features of “intellectual pursuits” or anything else related to the university’s ideals.

  2. @Josh

    Yes, I would tolerate the distribution of said pamphlets. I rather bigots openly express their wrong opinions than hide them. With the knowledge of their bigotry, I can work to counter it and disassociate from those individuals.

  3. Josh – Your very loose and inexact statements about the limits of free expression are not the point. Does freedom of expression have limits? Absolutely. Should every university administrator have the power to interpret those limits? Absolutely not.

    Your analogies to hate speech are deeply flawed. If those students were guilty of hate speech the appropriate measures exist to charge them with that. They were not charged, however, almost certainly because some university lawyer advised the administration that their actions don’t rise to the level of hate speech. So instead the university simply charged them with trespassing, which they’ve apparently decided is a universal tool against students doing anything they don’t like.

    Your point that there are limits to free speech isn’t the issue in dispute. Everyone agrees there are limits. But neither the University of Calgary nor you are responsible for defining them. If the university thought those students had crossed the line the issue should have been dealt with as hate speech. By not doing so, the university all but acknowledged that their actions do fall within the limits of what’s allowed in Canadian society – just not what’s allowed at the University of Calgary.

  4. Jeff draws the line at the simplest and (I would argue) most appropriate point. On a university campus, students and professors alike should have freedom of speech to the full extent that Canadian law permits.

  5. Honestly these students have done nothing wrong, illegal, or immoral. Also, it is so hypocritical and childish to be staunchly in favour of something (in this case abortion) but at the same time not want to look at it, and to actually be offended when it is displayed! So many of you people are attacking and insulting these fine women because they are displaying what you so blatantly support. I find this illogical and ridiculous.
    No offence intended.

  6. I’ll distance myself from that last comment, lest anyone suspect we might be on the same “side” of this issue. I don’t believe universities should try to live by their own rules. I believe, as Philippe has so rightly summarized, that they should observe the same standards as the rest of Canadian society – no higher and no lower. After all, if those standards happen to be improperly balanced (as they may be, at times) then the appropriate response is to attempt to right things for everyone in Canada. Not to give the power to interpret such fundamental questions to some functionary somewhere who may choose to hold a students’ academic career over his or her head to compel behaviour that isn’t required anywhere else.

    But all that said, to Acky, there’s a big difference between standing for the principle of free speech and the kind of partisan crap that you are spewing. These demonstrators are free to wave their signs around. And I’m free to turn my back on them and think they are grade-A fools for the way they promote their “message.” You’ve got it backwards. They have the right to talk. And I have the right to ignore them. As soon as you imply I have an obligation to listen, and/or that they have a right to my attention, you’ve just gone and screwed up the principle again.

    Really, I never imagined the basic ideas of free speech are so hard to understand. Clearly, we need better civics education at an earlier stage in the system.

  7. I think the point that everybody’s missing is that the University has requested that Campus Pro-Life turn their signs inward for the past two years. CPL runs G.A.P. twice a year (once in the fall, once in the winter), and each time, the University makes this request. This year, CPL was issued with a warning that the U would take legal action if they did not comply with the request. They did not comply. The University took legal action.

    Fair’s fair, isn’t it? To reduce the entire issue to a cliche, they had it coming, didn’t they? At the very least, they could see this coming. We could all see this coming. I believe that the same warning — that of potential legal action — was delivered the last time CPL ran a G.A.P. display. And the University didn’t pursue them that time. Ultimately the matter at hand is not an issue of free speech. It has nothing to do with politics, with debate: it is simply about the group’s refusal to comply with the larger organization and the organization’s perfectly acceptable response to that refusal.

    Does the content factor into this? To a certain extent, yes, but not in the sense that the University wanted to prevent CPL from showing G.A.P. on campus. They merely wanted to protect those persons who did not wish to see the images from having to see them. I have walked by G.A.P. many times. Sometimes I look, sometimes I don’t. Many times I wonder how the images of mutilated fetuses affect women who have had abortions — and many more times, I wonder how they affect women who have lost a child or who have given birth to stillborns. Potentially traumatising, no? Had CPL complied and turned their pictures inwards, they would still have been able to get their point across. The G.A.P. display is all about human rights, about human dignity. A woman — or a man — who has lost a child or been through an abortion should have the right not to be faced with what are essentially pictures of dead people (regardless of whether we want to refer to them as fetuses, or embryos, or ‘little persons,’ they are undeniably dead) for simple psychological reasons. Further more, in what other situation do we publicly display pictures of dead people? It revokes their dignity, their humanity. In fact, if the CPL considers the fetuses on their placards to be people, shouldn’t they allow these ‘people’ some dignity and lay their images to rest? (This notion of dignity is an argument put forward by one of Calgary’s staunch pro-lifers, Bishop Henry; it is one well worth repeating, regardless of which side of the debate one is on.)

    All this being said, I feel terrible for the students in question — both the CPL-ers, and those who oppose them, whether they are pro-choice or pro-life. The hostility surrounding this issue is unbearable.

  8. Mikki, what right does the University have to tell these students to have their signs facing inwards? Simply because the university says it doesn’t like what they’re doing and threatens to take legal action does not mean that the university actually has the right to do such a thing. The fact that the University has asked them to turn their signs inward is irrelavent, because these students were within their rights to ignore such a request, and the University, really, has no authority to enforce such a request. The students weren’t doing anything illegal, so they were under no obligation to comply. The trespass charge is pretty dubious since, as far as I know, these were students in good standing (ie. they had the right to be on campus), they were in a public space, and, really, I don’t know if it makes sense to argue that having signs pointing in one direction is not trespassing, but having signs pointing in another is, or that having a sign with an image of an aborted fetus on it is trespassing, but a “Drop Fees” on isn’t.

    As to the content of the signs themselves, yes, they are provocative and probably offensive to some people. That’s really irrelavent. There is no universal right not to be offended, and, arguably a university is the best place to express provocative ideas. For that matter, pro-life groups hardly have the monopoly on offensive signage. I’ve seen some pretty gruesome signage courtesy of anti-war groups, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine groups, animal rights groups, and, for that matter, I’ve seen some pretty offensive signage from political groups, too.

  9. The content is not at all irrelevant. If they were swastikas instead of aborted fetuses, I very much doubt that there would be much outcry against the university’s actions against them. The specific content is vulgar, in poor taste, graphic, and, yes, offensive. The “right to offend” does not extend to any time anywhere. Why would it? The same applies to other groups which employ gruesome signage to make cheap political points.

  10. @Josh

    It depends on the purpose of the swastikas. Let’s assume the propose is to promote Nazism. Provided the people displaying them are students or faculty, then I do not believe the University should take any action. If the display violates the hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code, then it is the duty of police and the Crown to prosecute.

  11. Dear Josh,

    The “right to not be offended” does not extend to any time anywhere, either. If the Young Liberals / Conservatives, the NDP, or the Green party can have campus displays and clubs, then I would expect that the Nazi party to have that ability as well.

    But hey, nice try at Godwin’ing the entire conversation.

  12. Josh- look at York’s approach. Quite frankly, I’d like to see York use the same heavy handed approach to stop these pointless Palestinian/Israeli “demonstrations”. Academic debate stops when the “zionist” and “terrorist” acqusations start flying around. Yet York allows these morons to scream at each other, bang their drums and wave their flags. Why? York realizes that even though these demonstrations are racially charged, they don’t have the right to stamp out free speech.

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