Eight Canadian university students face expulsion for mounting a pro-life display with pictures of Nazi and Armenian genocides alongside photos of abortion.
The University of Calgary had previously convinced police to charge some of the same students with trespassing, but prosecutors stayed charges on the eve of trial last fall.
So when the pro-life club remounted the Genocide Awareness Project’s graphic series of images in a high-traffic area on campus early in April, as they have each semester for five years, school administrators initiated an “internal misconduct” process against eight club members that could see them expelled.
“I am extremely disappointed in my university,” Leah Hallman told the Register. “They are not upholding our freedom of speech. University is meant to be a place where there is discussion between people that disagree.”
University of Calgary spokesman Grady Semmens said, “We aren’t commenting because this is a confidential matter.” The administration stated in the past that it only took action against the club after the latter refused “a reasonable compromise.” This would have seen the pictures of genocide victims arranged in an inward-facing circle.
The university has never tried to remove the signs, explaining that “this action would elevate the risk of confrontation and give the organization the publicity it is seeking.”
In earlier years, it posted warning signs around the display, reports Hallman, including an assurance that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom protected the students’ display.
“Then they put up the same signs but with the line about the charter pasted over,” Hallman said.
“Canadian and American universities have very similar ideological mindsets, but in the U.S. we have more protection for free speech,” said David French of the Alliance Defense Fund’s Tennessee-based Center for Academic Freedom. The center defends pro-life clubs against university administrations in the U.S. on First Amendment grounds.
Canadian public universities have argued for several years that they are not government institutions and are not bound by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, which protects individuals and private organizations from governments.
“We fight all our cases against U.S. public universities,” French said. “As for private universities, they are usually Christian, and we are usually defending them.”
The Alliance Defense Fund is a Christian nonprofit devoted to defending religious and free-speech rights and educating lawyers and law students in those rights.
French says the U.S. Center for Bioethical Reform also runs into problems from university administrations over its Genocide Awareness Project display, but because “they stick to public universities, we win all the cases.”
In fact, often schools cave in as soon as the local pro-life club or its lawyers sends a “demand letter” invoking the First Amendment right to free speech. Others wait until the trial to give up, perhaps hoping the club will give up first.
The University of Maryland recently attempted to move the Genocide Awareness Project from a high-volume area to a remote field, citing fire hazards, crowd-control problems and “emotional harassment” policies, but when ADF advanced First Amendment arguments, the school agreed to change its policies.
“The spaces schools are denying GAP have been used for decades to protest everything from the war in Vietnam to detentions at Guantanamo Bay,” French pointed out. “This weakens their argument.”
Last year, when Spokane Community College attempted to deny the pro-life club the opportunity to display a written statement unless it included pro-abortion rights arguments, then threatened club members with expulsion, the justification the school offered was that ”Washington is a pro-choice state.” Eventually, the school settled, changed its policy and paid the club president damages as well as legal costs.
In March, Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College abandoned its ban on pro-life pamphleting after ADF sent it a “demand letter” asserting First Amendment rights.
In January, after ADF intervened, Middlestate Tennessee University withdrew a special security fee applied only to pro-life displays. In November, ADF got Sacramento City College to reinstate the student president, who had been ousted by an illegal recall vote aimed at punishing him for protecting the free speech rights of a pro-life group.
In August, after ADF intervened, Wayne State University gave up efforts to deny the pro-life club funds and space for a weeklong display. The school justified its initial refusal on the grounds the club used religious arguments, “crossed the line” into political advocacy, and might offend female students.
‘We Shall Not Back Down’
Stephanie Gray of the Calgary-based Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform and the producer of the Genocide Awareness Project in Canada, says several Canadian universities have gotten away with the kind of restrictions ADF has overturned in the U.S. “At the University of British Columbia they restricted the display to two hours, allowed protesters to block it from sight, and forced the club to turn the pictures inwards.” Several other universities have let protesters effectively disrupt speeches by the center’s staff. They later apologized.
Hallman said the students would take the University of Calgary to court if it took action against them. “We’ve been warned that we should worry about our education,” she said. “We do care about our education, but we care about the children more.”
At a news conference to announce the university’s action, fellow club member Cameron Wilson defiantly declared: “Our message to the university is this: Punish us however you wish; our convictions shall not change. We shall not abandon the unborn child to be murdered. We shall not desert the single mom in crisis. We shall not allow the evil of abortion to remain unexposed. … We shall not back down from the stand we have made.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.