Letter: An open letter to advanced education and technology minister Doug Horner

Publication YearIssue Date 

The Canadian Constitution Foundation takes no position on the issue of abortion, but we do take a position in support of the right of all Canadians-- including university students-- to express their opinions freely.

Members of Campus Pro-Life at the University of Calgary have the legal right to peacefully express their views on campus, free from censorship and free from the university's repeated threats to arrest students for "trespassing" on their own campus and sanctions for "non-academic misconduct" leading to suspension and even expulsion.

Since 2006, on five previous occasions, Campus Pro-Life has set up a Genocide Awareness Project on the university's campus, which includes photos showing what abortion does to fetuses. On each occasion, the display generated discussion and debate on campus. On each occasion, the event was free from violence, threats, intimidation, physical confrontation and censorship. On four of the five occasions, the university erected signs on pathways leading to the GAP display stating (correctly) that it was protected by the freedom of expression guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Neither Campus Pro-Life nor the University of Calgary has applied to any court seeking an injunction or other remedy, so there is no "legal action" and this matter is not "before the courts." Further, there is no injunction or other Court Order in place in respect of the university's attempt to censor views with which it disagrees.

In March of 2008, the university asserted that Campus Pro-Life students become "trespassers" on their own campus if they refuse the university's censorship demand to turn the signs inwards such that passersby cannot see the signs. At that time, I reviewed the relevant legal authorities considering provincial trespass legislation and explained to the university that its position has no basis in law. I asked the university for authorities in support of its position. More than seven months have elapsed and I still have not received any authorities from the university in support of its position that it can use provincial trespass legislation against its own students to prevent the peaceful expression of an opinion on campus. In short, the university's attempted censorship is illegal, which is why Campus Pro-Life students have refused to comply with this censorship.

Further, in light of five prior GAP displays on campus since 2006, all of them without incident, the university's assertion that the GAP display poses a security risk has no basis in fact.

However, even if the GAP display was threatened by violence from those opposed to it, the appropriate solution would be the provision of security, not censorship of the opinion. In other words, if someone physically attacked Campus Pro-Life members or the GAP display on campus, that would not be a valid reason for censoring the GAP display: in this context censorship would constitute an affirmation of violence as an effective means to silence unpopular opinions. If the university censors an opinion rather than providing adequate security, the university sends a powerful signal that unpopular or controversial views can be silenced through the threat of violence. The implications are worth pondering: a Jewish group canceling a speaking event featuring an Israeli politician because of a threat of possible violence from some Palestinians or Muslims; a conference of beef producers cancelled because of a threat of possible violence from certain animal rights activists, etc.

The university asserts that its mission is "to seek truth and disseminate knowledge." The Supreme Court of Canada has stated repeatedly that the quest for truth is one of the principal benefits of, and justifications for, freedom of expression.

The very reason why taxpayers sustain the university is to provide a campus forum where all views can be expressed peacefully, without censorship or other forms of intimidation, such as the university threatening its own students with arrest for "trespassing" on campus. As you know, the University of Calgary receives the majority of its funding from taxpayers, which is why it cannot pretend to be a "private" institution with the right to censor the expression of views on campus with which it disagrees.

Aside from the Charter's freedom of expression guarantee, the university is governed by the Post-secondary Learning Act, S.A. 2003, c. P-19.5, which does not authorize the university to censor opinions with which it disagrees. The legal right of students to peacefully express their views on campus is one which they all possess equally, without discrimination. Further, I have specifically asked the university to indicate which by-laws, policies, regulations or statutory provisions it relies on as authority for being able to censor the peaceful expression of an opinion on campus. Again, I have not received a response from the university to this query.

[Wednesday], Campus Pro-Life students plan[ned] to exercise their legal right to peacefully express their opinions on campus, disregarding the university's illegal censorship demands.

The students trust that you and all MLAs, will uphold and support their right to do so.