Pro-choice, anti-abortion groups team up for freedom of speech

The pro-choice B.C. Civil Liberties Association has joined with a University of Victoria anti-abortion group in a court case fighting for the group’s rights to express its views on campus.

The association, in conjunction with the former president of UVic’s Youth Protecting Youth club, is petitioning the B.C. Supreme Court to set aside the university’s decision not to allow a “choice chain” on campus last year.

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A choice chain involves people standing on public sidewalks holding three-foot-by-four-foot signs with graphic photographs of first-trimester aborted fetuses. Those taking part also hand out pamphlets.

“In the association’s view, free speech is fundamental to the very nature of a university education,” said Craig Jones, the association’s lawyer, who represented the Youth Protecting Youth club at a four-day court hearing last week.

“It’s a recurring problem across campuses and not just around abortion,” he said. “In Ontario, they’ve had controversies around speech connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s a real concern.”

The association accepted the case because it believes UVic should have been required to weigh the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the right to freedom of expression in its decision not to allow the anti-abortion club to book space to mount a “choice chain” in 2013, Jones said.

Since 2009, the University of Victoria Students’ Society has found on three separate occasions that the club harassed students. The group was censured by the society, which cut off its funding.

After the club mounted a choice chain in November 2011, the students’ society passed a resolution barring the club from repeating the display. In 2013, when the club applied to the university to book space for a similar event, the university cancelled the club’s booking, citing the decision of the students’ society.

“That decision is unreasonable,” Jones said.

“We’re saying the university has to make these decisions itself and it has to do it in light of the Charter of Rights. The university and the students’ society are arguing that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms doesn’t apply to these kinds of decisions.”

Nitya Iyer, one of two lawyers representing the students’ society, said the charter shouldn’t apply to universities in this context. “We’re not saying free speech isn’t important. We’re saying there are different ways to deal with those issues. You don’t go running off to court every time you don’t get your way,” Iyer said.

Iyer said the club could have appealed the students’ society’s decision. Instead, after the society penalized Youth Protecting Youth, the club applied directly to the university to have the choice chain in 2013.

“The students’ society is saying that the rights of people with one point of view have to be balanced with those of other people on campus,” said Iyer.

“On a university campus, you have lots of people who want to speak. You also have people who don’t want to be involved, and don’t want to be approached and asked about their views on abortion or faced with someone trying to get them to think differently about it.”

Jim Dunsdon, UVic’s associate vice-president of student affairs, said the case is complex, with many factors at play, but would not comment further while it’s before the courts.

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson is expected to hand down his decision in two to six months.

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