Free speech is again the centre of controversy at York University after the students’ union canceled an on-campus abortion debate last week only four hours before the event was scheduled to commence. This has some students accusing the York Federation of Students of quashing open dialogue around issues they disagree with.
“We would not have a debate over something that is racist or homophobic,” said Gilary Massa, vice-president equity of the York Federation of Students. “This debate is sexist … when it comes to free speech there is a line. … They are talking about taking away women’s rights. We would not allow a debate asking if women beating should be allowed.”
The club hosting the event, the York Students for Bioethical Awareness (SBA), invited Jose Ruba from the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Awareness to represent the pro-life side in the debate. The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Awareness (WARNING: graphic content) main page features a graphic comparing abortion to the Holocaust accompanied with the statement: “When personhood is denied, the unthinkable becomes reality.” The CCBEA is behind the controversial “Genocide Awareness Project” and its large images of aborted fetuses alongside images of the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.
But the graphic images were not cited by the student government as a reason for shutting the event down. Rather, the reasoning seems to be purely ideological.
“I was told in a meeting by members of the York Federation of Students that debating abortion is comparable to debating whether a man should be allowed to beat his wife,” said Margaret Fung, co-president of SBA. “They said that there is freedom of speech to a limit, and that abortion is not an issue to debate. … They were opposed to our message and they stopped this opportunity for us to express our viewpoint in the context of a debate.”
Amir Mohareb, president of the York Debating Society and moderator of the canceled debate, was surprised by the late cancellation. “[The YFS executives] were openly excited about the debate and ready to cheer on the side they support in the debate,” he said. He was initially concerned about the plan for the debate and declined the invitation to moderate at first. “We were concerned about the original plan and responded with a list of conditions to make sure it was a fair and proper debate,” said Mohareb. “They [SBA] accepted our terms.”
Mohareb and Fung have both requested a written explanation of the cancellation. Mohareb said there may have been good reason to cancel the debate but he hasn’t heard it yet: “A number of different executives said that a debate on abortion may be inappropriate to hold in the student centre.” Mohareb said that if the cancellation was because of the political issue being discussed, it would be an unacceptable attack on free speech.
However, Mohareb said that the anti-abortion speaker wanted to hand out materials featuring the controversial images. Mohareb suggested that if the YFS had opposed the debate on the ground of the offensive materials, that might be understandable. But above all, he urged the student government to explain their actions.
But in interview with Maclean’s Massa maintained that it was the topic of the debate that led them to put a stop to it. She repeatedly compared the act of banning abortion to beating women.
Although both sides are deeply entrenched in their positions, the YFS has been somewhat inconsistent on free speech in the last week. The day after the cancellation of the debate, Massa led a delegation of York students to McMaster University to protest what they called an infringement on free speech.
The YFS joined other Toronto students unions in condemning McMaster University and the McMaster Students Union for censoring a poster featuring the controversial phrase “Israeli Apartheid” and a graphic, violent image. At the rally, the Toronto unions accused the university and students union of shutting down free speech at McMaster. They called on McMaster University and students union to allow for absolute free political speech on the campus.
Massa doesn’t see the connection between the two incidents. She said that the censorship at McMaster was about a political issue while the York debate would have amounted to “hate speech.”