Trying to Thwart Free Speech

In recent years, Canada has become infamous for its hostility to free speech when anyone is offended by it.  Cases involving pro-life demonstrations at two Canadian universities highlight this repugnant trend.

The Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) provides anti-abortion displays and training to student groups across North America. Since 1998, GAP has made its presence felt on more than 150 campuses in the United States. GAP was launched in Canada in 1999 and its displays there have led to a great deal of controversy.

Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, provides a cautionary tale on how campuses react to GAP’s aggressive pro-life tactics.

In mid-2010, the Carleton student group Lifeline sought permission to set up a GAP display in a prominent, outdoor area where other groups have assembled to publicize political issues. In August, Carleton official David Sterritt denied permission to set up in the outdoor area. His reason: “the Genocide Awareness Project uses promotional materials which are disturbing and offensive to some.”

GAP’s standard display is clearly designed to shock, offend, and stir controversy. The display’s core consists of 8-to-13 foot high billboards that graphically compare aborted fetuses to genocide victims, like the Jews in Nazi Germany. The billboards are often surrounded by an iron fence with surveillance cameras nearby in order to protect the hosting students, who stand behind the fence to hand out literature and engage passers-by in discussion. 

Sterritt told Lifeline that its display would be consigned to a remote indoor area without foot-traffic. Nicholas McLeod of Lifeline explained the group’s reaction: “The point of a protest is for people to see it. Limiting an exhibit to an inside room is like telling Martin Luther King that he couldn’t march through white neighbourhoods.”

Eight days after refusing to permit the outdoor display, Carleton was contacted by an attorney acting on Lifeline’s behalf. In his letter, he protested the university’s decision, calling it an attempt to censor GAP and limit the group’s freedom of expression.

The media soon took note and started to use the word “censorship.”  The Canadian Free Press was typical when it later declared, “Would Carleton deny a prominent place on campus to gay or Muslim students, just because some people might find their speech offensive? If other groups wanted to use disturbing photos to expose the injustice of spousal assault, genocide in Darfur, cruelty to animals, or impaired driving, would Carleton limit those groups to an out-of-the-way place?”

The GAP display was scheduled for October 4. At approximately 9:00 a.m., pro-life students started to set up the GAP display outdoors. When campus security was unsuccessful in preventing the display, about nine Ottawa police officers arrived to handcuff, arrest and paddy-wagon five of the students on  trespass charges. After 45 minutes in the security office, the students were each fined $130 and released. 

Then, in November, Carleton’s student association banned Lifeline for “discriminating against women.” Furthermore, it demanded that the group change its constitution to embrace abortion rights in order to regain its status. Lifeline is challenging that decision. One student is also legally challenging the trespassing fine, accusing Carleton of discrimination and the abrogation of free speech. 

The university has converted five pro-life demonstrators into free speech champions. By trying to marginalize a political viewpoint, Carleton has offered that viewpoint overwhelmingly favorable press coverage and a plausible lawsuit. Besides that, it has also diminished its academic reputation.

Events at the University of Calgary provide another cautionary tale. In 2006 and 2007, the Campus Pro-Life group held several GAP displays and no problems or incidents were reported. The U of C simply posted neighboring signs to explain that the exhibit was protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2008, however, the charter apparently no longer applied; the U of C demanded that Campus Pro-Life signs be turned inward, away from passing traffic. No other student group has ever received a similar demand. Then, in 2010, several pro-life students were found guilty of “non-academic misconduct” for setting up a display.

A recent and precedent-setting court decision in Alberta could change the way universities treat student protests: Pridgen v. University of Calgary (October, 2010). In that case (which is not directly related to GAP), the court held that the university was “an agent of the provincial government in providing accessible post-secondary education services to students in Alberta”; thus, it is “not a Charter-free zone.” In short, the University must “not offend the rights provided under the Charter” including freedom of speech.

If university officials continue to convert GAP displays into a free speech cases, they seem likely to lose both in the law and the public eye.

Ironically, the best defense of a liberal university against a GAP display may be to ignore it. Left to its own, the display seems to elicit as much or more hostility as interest. Equating dismembered fetuses with Holocaust victims mean that women who abort are the moral equivalent of genocidal Nazis. Moreover, Jewish groups often feel insulted as well. The Jewish student group Hillel at Queen University (Kingston, Ontario) wrote of the Carleton display, “[C]omparing this calamity [the Holocaust] with the right of women to control their own bodies…is belittling and disrespecting the memory of six million murdered Jews, along with millions of Roman Catholics, gay men, people with disabilities and other victims.” 

In short, the best defense against an unreasonable or offensive position is to debate it openly. What’s amazing is that university officials should have to learn that lesson the hard way.