Latest move to silence abortion debate at UVic will likely lead to legal showdown
The University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) cranked up their fight against the pro-life student club Youth Protecting Youth (YPY) last week by revoking the club’s status. Previous efforts to silence the club’s controversial message only went so far as to deny the club funding. This latest move denies the very existence of the group, upping the stakes significantly in a conflict that is sure to end up in court.
The spat began in October 2008 when the university’s students’ society refused to give YPY the same meagre funding all UVic student clubs receive. Clubs approved by a committee are entitled to $232 each year in addition to such perks as banner supplies and free room bookings. Upon review in 2009, the committee approved funding for YPY. But the students’ society board stepped in and once again revoked the funding, yet still permitted it to operate on campus.
In an October 2009 meeting, the society’s directors accused YPY of “harassing” female students with anti-abortion posters. Those opposed to YPY have also complained about a YPY sponsored event that featured the controversial pro-life activist Stephanie Gray debate distinguished medical ethicist Eike-Henner Kluge. Director Tracey Ho summed up the society’s position by saying, “No one should debate my rights over my own body.”
YPY fought back by contacting the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), in hopes the organization would defend its right to freedom of speech. BCCLA agreed and in late 2009 threatened to launch a lawsuit on behalf of YPY if the UVSS didn’t reinstate the club’s funding. The UVSS brushed the BCCLA off. (Read our previous coverage here.)
In a UVSS meeting that stretched past 11pm last Monday night, the student society decided to revoke the club’s status for one year, meaning that in addition to losing funding, YPY can no longer rent rooms or access other perks available to clubs. YPY may be able to regain status if it complies to certain restrictions. The catch is that the UVSS hasn’t yet determined what those restriction are, so YPY’s status won’t change until the restrictions are written at some unspecified time in the future.
The decision was in part a response to a complaint filed by the UVSS Women’s Centre. “Reproductive rights are elemental in women’s collective and individual potential for equity in all realms of social life,” the complaint letter states. “Access to abortion free from harassment is one of these reproductive rights that YPY continually undermine through the proliferation of inaccurate information and the creation of hostile environments.”
“YPY’s identity and actions as a pro-life organization inherently discriminates against women. Through intimidation tactics and moralist evangelizing, YPY limits the ability of women on campus to access accurate information about abortion free from harassment.”
John Dixon, president of BCCLA, finds this argument illogical. “It is worthwhile to consider, for a moment, what this really means,” he wrote in an email. “It means that the very civil, moderate pro-life YPY club at UVic doesn’t even have to get out of bed in the morning to discriminate against women; it means that no matter how mild, moderate, and circumscribed its advocacy, it discriminates against women. There is no appeal to reason here, but a weird evocation of a kind of secular flavour of sacrilege.”
In a Thursday email to UVSS chairperson Veronica Harrison, YPY president Anastasia Pearse asked the UVSS to call a special general meeting to reconsider their status. “We are unaware of any policy or bylaw that gives the Board discretion to withhold club status indefinitely based upon a yet-to-be-developed policy,” Pearse wrote. “We refuse to participate.”
Harrison has maintained that the UVSS has every right to deny funding to YPY. “Freedom of speech of course can happen, but not when it’s harassing or oppressing other people,” she said in December.
UVSS Director Nathan Warner was one of the minority who voted against revoking YPY’s status. “I’m pro-choice but I’m also pro-debate,” he told Maclean’s. “Abortion is not an easy topic for anyone and I believe that no matter what you ask it will likely offend someone. I don’t think that is reason enough to merit banning a club from campus.”
Warner concedes that YPY is asking tough questions in its anti-abortion campaign. But, as he points out, YPY’s posters don’t include graphic images that have been associated with other pro-life campus activism. “This attack on freedom of expression is unfounded and needs to be stopped,” he said.
It seems unlikely that the BCCLA will back off either. According to Dixon: “At the University of Victoria, the values of freedom of conscience, opinion, religion, and expression are decried as quaint residues of an irrelevant past. The Board of the Student Society has drunk deeply at the well of post-modernist ideology, and they are determined to drive the very moderate and civil student pro-life club from the campus. What certainly seems separate from this university is the faintest memory of the very idea of a ‘university’ as a place dedicated to the preference of dialogue over force.”
Related: Closed for debate. Also see, Uvic’s pro-choicers up the ante against pro-life club
- With files from David Foster