All Posts Tagged With: "British Columbia Civil Liberties Association"
On the Christian law school where gays need not apply
Have you heard? Free speech is a thing of the past. And religious liberty is dying fast.
It began last week when Arun Smith, a seventh-year human rights student at Carleton University in Ottawa, tore down a “free speech wall” on campus because it featured socially conservative comments. The action inspired three National Post columns and an Ezra Levant exclusive lamenting the end of freedom of expression as we know it.
Elsewhere, on the religious liberty front, the Canadian Council of Law Deans wrote a letter of protest to Canada’s Federation of Law Societies about Trinity Western University. The Christian liberal arts school in British Columbia wants to open a law school that would require students to sign a Community Covenant Agreement that pledges “Healthy Sexuality.” The agreement has nothing to do with gonorrhea or how to avoid it: what’s to be avoided is love and sex between people of the same gender (which is, I guess, by Trinity Western’s standards, worse than gonorrhea). “Sexual intimacy,” says the covenant, “is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman.” In other words, gays need not apply.
Why submitting universities to the Charter is a bad idea
If you question the morality of abortion then a university campus is no place for you. Anti-abortion student clubs are more likely to be subjected to an inquisition or denounced as misogynistic than to be invited to participate in robust debate. Student unions and university administrations have removed their funding, banned them from campus, and have even called the police.
These are not simply internal disputes. Pro-life groups have fought back through the courts, moves that, if successful, may ultimately bring universities within the purview of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To be sure, the militancy and hostility to diverse opinion of pro-choice student unions offends the libertarian norms of the Ivory Tower. But if campaigns to have expressive rights extended to universities are successful, then the precedent could demolish any notion of university autonomy.
While I hold no brief for campus censors, stripping universities of their independence, even for an exquisitely liberal purpose, is a greater threat. Universities should retain the authority to regulate what is and isn’t permitted on their campuses, particularly when it comes to non-academic activities. Just because political advocacy may occur on a university campus does not make it a scholarly exercise.
A University of Victoria pro-life group, Youth Protecting Youth (YPY), recently filed a lawsuit with the B.C. Supreme Court against the University of Victoria Students’ Society over a decision to deny the group the same funding that other student groups receive. Although that funding has since been restored, according to their website, the group wants assurances that it won’t be “silenced again.”
If the case makes it to court, it will centre, in part, around the question of whether the student society is in violation of B.C.’s University Act, which states that a student union’s “purpose is to represent the interests of the general undergraduate or graduate student body.”
This is supported by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which argues in an affidavit that accompanied its recent application for intervener status in the case that, “for one group of students to purport to ‘govern’ by suppressing and singling out a group whose lawful expression it does not like is unlawful as being fundamentally offensive to fundamental legal principles.”
Although BCCLA executive director John Dixon has stated several times, including to Maclean’s, that his group believes denying pro-life clubs funding or space violates the Charter, the civil liberties group does not plan to make that argument this time around. Instead, in order to expedite the process, BCCLA simply plans to assist YPY in its lawsuit.
That doesn’t mean a quest to bring universities under constitutional control has been shelved for good. “We’ll look for the right case,” Dixon told me.
Immunity from the Charter, that student unions and university administrations cite in defence of their proclivity toward censorship, dates back to a precedent-setting 1990 Supreme Court ruling. At issue, was a case that sought to have the University of Guelph’s mandatory retirement policy struck down on Charter grounds. As the Charter is only applicable to Parliament and provincial legislatures, the Court first considered whether universities are under government control and ultimately ruled that they were not.
The majority did concede that universities are “creatures of statute carrying out an important public service,” and that “their powers, objects, activities and governing structures are determined by government.”
However, the Court ruled that “universities are legally autonomous” because of the existence of an independent board of governors that does not represent the government. Despite legislative constraints and financial reliance, university institutions “control their own affairs and enjoy independence from government regarding all important internal matters.” In effect, “their decisions are not government decisions.”
Despite this ruling, Dixon points out that the decision did not entrench universities as non-governmental entities as clearly as is asserted by student unions and university administrations. The late Justice John Sopinka, who sided with the majority, wrote in his own opinion of the case that while universities are to be guaranteed strict autonomy in their selection of staff, “some university activities, however, may be governmental in nature.”
In a talk given at the University of Guelph a few years later, Sopinka elaborated on what he meant. “If governing bodies engage in acts of censorship, they run the risk of being classed as government action and subject to the control of the Charter,” he said.
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
Latest petition goes so far as to question existence of pro-life club Youth Protecting Youth
David J. A. Foster, a student blogger at the University of Victoria, reports that he has come across a petition calling for the indefinite suspension of the pro-life club Youth Protecting Youth. The petition, which was found in UVic’s students union building, goes farther than previous efforts by the University of Victoria Students’ Society to limit the club’s activities.
For nearly a year and a half, Youth Protecting Youth (YPY) and the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) have locked horns. Since October 2008, the UVSS has denied $232 in annual funding to which all clubs are entitled to. In October 2009 the UVSS board again voted to deny funding. Recently, the BC Civil Liberties Association asked the UVSS board to reconsider their position, arguing that denying funding is an unreasonable limit to freedom of speech on a university campus that should be a bastion of open debate. The board refused and BCCLA is threatening legal action. The Canadian Federation of Students has reportedly stepped up to offer the UVSS legal funding if the BCCLA makes good on its threat.
However, while UVSS has repeatedly refused to fund the anti-abortion club, it has not outright denied its status as a club. This gives the group the right to book space and other perks. This latest petition brings the controversy a step further by asking that the club be denied status full stop.
The petition asks the UVSS clubs council to consider a motion calling for the suspension of the group for “their repeated offensive actions.” These offensive actions, as described in a letter preceding the petition, include: use of GAP (Genocide Awareness Project) materials on campus and hosting the controversial anti-abortion activist Stephanie Gray on campus, who participated in a debate with a philosophy professor. “This is hate speech that caused harm to many people on campus, including but not limited to many women on campus who have had abortions,” the letter reads. “The images and the captions on the posters harassed women and tried to make us feel guilty about a choice that we have a right to make.”
First thing first, according to everyone I’ve spoken to about the topic, GAP materials–which typically feature graphic images of abortions next to those of horrific events like the Rwandan Genocide–have never been used on UVic campus. Ever. Not by Stephanie Gray or anyone. So what this boils down to is a group of students feeling offended by the posters and Stephanie Gray.
I wrote an article on the BCCLA’s legal action against the UVSS in December, which included a description of the event at which Gray spoke. You can read it here.
And as far as I can tell, this dispute is going to go as far as the courts allow. John Dixon of the BCCLA is candid about his organization’s determination to fight for YPY’s freedom of speech and I can’t think of a more aggressive sparring partner than a stubborn students’ association funded by the CFS.
Pro-life student clubs are being shut out across the country
It was standing room only at the University of Victoria on Oct. 21, when anti-abortion activist Stephanie Gray visited from Calgary to debate distinguished medical ethicist Eike-Henner Kluge. Gray and Kluge duked it out twice that day, to accommodate those who couldn’t fit into the 200-seat room for round one. Not one to disappoint, Gray, who is executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, employed the tactics that make her so controversial: she compared abortion to the Holocaust and showed a video of an abortion.
Yet compared to some of the activism on Canadian campuses, the debate was mild, the audience civil, even polite. Periodically, when Gray began speaking, a group of students would hold up signs sporting slogans like “My body is not up for debate.” And there were scattered heckles when she accused pro-choicers of believing that “a woman has the right to directly and intentionally dismember and decapitate and disembowel her child.” But she wasn’t accosted, yelled at, or in any way prevented from speaking her mind. Nevertheless, the debate and other events organized by UVic’s pro-life club, called Youth Protecting Youth (YPY), are shaping up to be the basis of a legal battle over free speech that could change the way student unions and even universities operate.
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 and such perks as banner supplies and free room bookings. Upon review in 2009, the committee approved YPY. But the students’ society board stepped in and once again revoked the funding. In an Oct. 5 meeting, the society’s directors accused YPY of “harassing” female students (although they mentioned no specifics). Director Tracey Ho summed up the society’s position by saying, “No one should debate my rights over my own body.”
Ho’s sentiment is particularly troubling when it is put into force at universities, which should be bastions of intellectual freedom and open debate, says John Dixon, director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. So when YPY approached the association to complain of discrimination, it was happy to help. “This is a freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression case,” Dixon says.
The UVic students’ society, on the other hand, maintains that events such as the Gray-Kluge debate go beyond the limits of free expression. “Freedom of speech of course can happen, but not when it’s harassing or oppressing other people,” says Veronica Harrison, the society’s chairperson. Dixon’s response: “There used to be people who would run up to women outside abortion clinics with video cameras and say: ‘We’re going to show your priests, mothers, teachers, classmates.’ That’s harassment. I don’t see how you can be harassed by somebody giving a speech—if you don’t want to hear it, don’t go.”