Civil liberties group lends support for pro-life clubs

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

At what point does free speech come into conflict with pro-life organizations on campuses?

This is a central question in the ongoing controversy between many student unions and pro-life groups on university campuses across Canada.

At the University of Calgary three students were recently charged with trespassing during their pro-life group’s ongoing Genocide Awareness Project.

According to Leah Hallman, president of Campus Pro-Life at Calgary, the students will appear in court on Feb. 27 and plead not guilty. The graphic signs in question were purchased from the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. CCBR’s website also includes graphic images.

“We have found at least two reasons why we use [these] pictures. Firstly, our own experience with women telling us they decide not to abort because of pictures,” Stephanie Gray, executive director and founder of CCBR, explained.

“Secondly, when we studied the history of social reform movements ... it became clear to us that they all achieved societal change using disturbing images or pictures,” she added.

CCBR recently garnered attention after its attempts to attend an event at York University were blocked by the York Federation of Students. York’s lobbying was supported by the Canadian Federation of Students.

The decision by several student unions to block pro-life groups from their campuses prompted the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to recently campaign in favour of the groups, including a letter to CFS.

“Funding is not really the issue. With us the issue is whether the anti-abortion groups could acquire the status of clubs on campus,” Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the CCLA, said.

“We want to ensure that no groups suffer discrimination for their ideology. The CCLA is strongly pro-choice on the abortion question. We also think freedom of speech is worthy of protection. Anything that you may object to with the anti-abortion point of view should be challenged, not muzzled. Debate, don’t try to censor,” he added.

However, the CFS has not passed judgment on whether or not the graphic images should be used; it claims to be about student unions helping each other.

“We are expressing support for each other. It is up to individual student unions on campuses to resolve internal conflicts and difficulties,” Katherine Giroux-Bougard, national chairperson of CFS, stated.

Borovoy asserted groups on campus should only be denied amenities because of conduct, not because of their point of view on a particular issue.

“Student unions direct the work of the federation, not the other way around, because we are a grass-roots organization. We are aware of CCLA’s complaint. However, no official copy of a letter or phone call was received,” Giroux-Bougard concluded.

Problems have not manifested themselves in this way at Western. Western Lifeline, a ratified club by the University Students’ Council, has not encountered any difficulties.

“There is no better place than campus to allow people to express differing opinions. However, it is important to have a safe and inclusive environment to speak in,” Jacqueline Cole, USC VP-university affairs, explained.

“We are in an incubator for ideas and they should be expressed. But this should be done so safely " where the boundary lies depends on the circumstances.”

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