Freedom Of Speech Should Trump Discomfort At University Of Calgary

January 2009

At the beginning of a university education, students are often and properly reminded to keep an open mind about their existing prejudices. If, after four years of education, an 18-year-old should leave with the same perspective with which she entered, chances are her biases have only been re-affirmed and her mind not opened.

Inculcating an open mind becomes more difficult when university administrations fail to defend freedom of expression, or worse, discourage it, as happened this week at the University of Calgary.

As most readers will know, the University of Calgary's student pro-life club, as on five previous occasions, set up a display that features several graphic pictures.

The display includes images of Holocaust victims, of black Americans lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, of those who died in the Rwandan genocide, and images of abortion. The exhibit is an attempt to equate the latter with all of the former.

To understate the matter, linking abortion to the Holocaust will provoke a wide variety of reactions.

But that's not the issue.

Freedom of expression is the issue.

Instead of defending that right, the university administration has (at various points leading up to this week's display) threatened some of our students with expulsion, trespassing charges, fines and arrest, if the prolife display went ahead as planned, with its graphic images turned outward instead of inward. In October, when the university met with the pro-life club, it brought along seven police officers.

The university overreacted then and now.

Such tactics intend to intimidate and undermine free inquiry on campus. In addition, the student pro-life club has been subject to a higher standard than any other group on campus.

The university would never order an activist animal rights group that might display pictures of animals bleeding, suffering or dead to turn its pictures inward. Nor would the university censor or threaten antiwar activists for posting pictures of those burnt alive in Hiroshima or Dresden by Allied bombs.

The more likely response would be that such images show the end results of past personal and political decisions. The university would likely argue such depictions might make some uncomfortable, but that's the point of a university: to question, analyze and debate about one's own assumptions and morality, as well as that of others.

The university administration is not wrong in its desire to maintain some control over university grounds. Property rights matter and a university has the right to limit some student activities.

However, the decision on such matters rest on important distinctions – peaceful pro-lifers are not biker gangs congregating on campus for illegal purposes.

The university administration initially argued pro-life students would be trespassing if they disobeyed the administration's instructions; the university also claimed it was concerned about violence.

The trespassing threat does not hold up.

As the club's lawyer, John Carpay from the Canadian Constitutional Foundation argues in a recent letter to the university, on four of the five occasions when students erected their prolife display in the past, the university erected signs on campus to state the display was protected by the freedom of expression guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Also, Carpay notes that such expression is guaranteed by Alberta's post-secondary Learning Act, and by Canadian legal precedent in, for example, R. v. Whatcott in 2002. In that case, a court upheld a University of Regina student's right to distribute pro-life flyers on campus. On the concern over violence, the university's position is indefensible.

The only history of violence surrounding the pro-life display occurred in 2005, and from students that were opposed to the pro-life display. Those opposed to the display did the attacking, after the university failed to provide security.

The proper response by university officials to the threat of violence is not to clamp down on the freedom of expression of those who are threatened, it is to ensure that students' rights to engage in open discourse is protected.

The university administration has gone overboard in this matter by seeking to restrict students' freedom of speech.

The university's mission is to encourage, not discourage critical thinking. Any university interested in free thinking should not look for an excuse to censor; it should look for reasons not to limit student speech.

The administration should cease the constant harassment of students every time this issue arises on campus. Administration should instead provide security, promote tolerance of diverse opinions, and provide space for the pro-life students without the double-standards and restrictions on speech.

Barry Cooper, Tom Flanagan and Mark Milke teach Political Science at The University of Calgary. Marco Navarro-Genie teaches political science and history at St. Mary's University College and at The University of Calgary.