How Not to Silence Pro-Lifers
One Canadian university’s attempt to squash a pro-life display is backfiring … in court.
OTTAWA — When members of Lifeline, a small but committed pro-life club at Carleton University, tried to put up a pro-life display, university security and police officers arrested them.
The incident took place last October, when five members of the group were hauled away in handcuffs after their attempt to display the Genocide Awareness Project in a prominent campus quadrangle at the Ottawa university.
Now, two of the five students facing trespassing charges have sued the university and several staff for $200,000 Canadian. Lifeline president Ruth Lobo and treasurer John McLeod, both 22, claim that the school and its staff were wrong to arrest them, broke their own policies and violated the Canadian constitution.
Moreover, in choosing a “high-traffic area” to make the arrests and bringing in police to do so, the pair claims the university acted “deliberately, maliciously and with bad faith, with the intent of intimidating, bullying, humiliating and censoring Carleton Lifeline.”
The university released a statement vowing to “defend itself vigorously” against Lifeline’s suit. It had acted properly, the statement insisted, in trying “to balance the Lifeline group’s right to exercise free speech with the desire to allow other members of the campus community to choose whether or not they wanted to see the images that make up the Genocide Awareness exhibit.” The exhibit compares Canada’s 100,000-plus annual death toll from abortion to genocides in Armenia, Rwanda and Nazi-controlled Europe.
‘No Right Not to Be Offended’
Lifeline had tried to book the inner-campus outdoor “Tory Quad” for the display but had been shunted by the university to a remote hall because, stated the university, GAP was “disturbing and offensive to some.”
“I think the university was sincere,” Lobo told the Register, “but they are certainly being selective about which offensive images they choose to protect people from.” For example, she says, the university took no action to restrict the viewership of two other groups displaying strong images. The Holocaust Awareness group displayed pictures of historical genocides, much like the Genocide Awareness Project, but without reference to abortions. The campus animal-rights group displayed images of slaughtered baby seals, while shouting “Shame on you” at passing students.
“There is no right in law not to be offended,” says Lifeline’s lawyer, Albertos Polizogopoulis. “There are some prohibited forms of speech, such as incitements to violence and hate speech, but offensive speech is not among them.”
Lifeline is suing the university on several grounds, the main one being that the university has a contractual obligation to its students to follow its internal policies, including those promising to uphold freedom of inquiry and speech.
The second allegation is that the university violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a more dubious claim because the 30-year-old charter applies only to government bodies; it has never been established in court that Canada’s public universities are government bodies under the charter.
“We have a [Supreme Court of Canada] decision from the 1980s that said the charter did not apply to a university in its dealings with its employees,” says Polizogopoulis. “But the court stated that the ruling left the question open as far as other university operations were concerned.”
Last year an Alberta court ruled that the charter protection for free speech did apply to the University of Calgary, “but that ruling doesn’t apply here in Ontario,” said Polizogopoulos.
Lobo said she’s “shocked that there is not more of an uproar at this violation of free speech,” neither from academics nor the 150-plus clubs on campus, many of them highly political. “I can only guess that it is because the abortion issue is so controversial.” The Canadian Civil Liberties Union, which is officially pro-abortion, has supported Lifeline on the free-speech issue.
Carleton says it hasn’t restricted the club’s rights because it “repeatedly offered the Lifeline group the use of Porter Hall, a venue that is used for town-hall meetings, speeches and other events on campus. … Carleton remains a marketplace of ideas, a place where members of the community can debate and discuss a full range of issues and ideas.”
But Stephanie Gray, the president of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, which provides the Genocide Awareness Project to Canadian universities, said, “Canadians don’t embrace free speech like Americans do. Most of our universities have explicit policies in support of free speech, but when we show up with our pictures showing the brutal ugliness of abortion, they discover a supposed right not to be bothered or distressed. GAP provokes discussion about abortion, and that threatens the status quo.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.