Opinion: Anti-Abortion Exhibit To Test UBC’s Commitment To Free Speech On Campus

April 2011

Police arrest a Carleton University student who was staging an anti-abortion protest.

This Thursday March 10, a controversial pro-life exhibit will test UBC’s commitment to free speech and to the rule of law. Students with the campus club Lifeline will set up the “Genocide Awareness Project” display, using large colour photos to compare abortion to various historical genocides. In the past decade, UBC has imposed restrictions on Lifeline’s speech, such as limits on the number and size of signs, and limits on the number of times per year that Lifeline can exercise its free speech rights. Other campus protests about George W. Bush, the 2010 Olympics, Michael Ignatieff, homelessness, and animal rights have not faced restrictions like these.

Unfair as this discrimination has been, being singled out for censorship is not Lifeline’s biggest concern. Far worse has been UBC’s choice to condone mob obstruction of Lifeline’s display.

For example, when Lifeline set up its display on campus in 2010, opponents covered the display with large cloths and banners, impeded pedestrian traffic, and made it impossible for Lifeline to engage other students in discussion. A shocking video shows police cheerfully informing Lifeline’s opponents that theycouldcontinue to engage in this physical obstruction and suppress Lifeline’s speech.

Lifeline is entirely supportive of the rights of counter-demonstrators to share their competing views in the public square. In this regard, there is a huge difference between expressing your own view and preventing someone else from expressing hers. If a large crowd of people opposed to Islam gathered right next to a UBC Muslim Students Association display, loudly chanted anti-Islamic slogans, covered the display with large cloths, and made it impossible for Muslims to engage passersby in dialogue, would UBC condone the behaviour of the loud mob? I suspect that UBC would force the mob to choose a different time, or a different location, or a less noisy method, or all three. At the very least, UBC would create and enforce a “buffer zone” between the Muslims and their opponents, such that the Muslims could continue to engage students in dialogue.

In a 2008 Globe and Mail interview, UBC President Dr. Stephen Toope lamented that “in Canada we have seen many examples of students trying to shut down speakers with whom they disagree.” Dr. Toope asserted that “the role of the university is to encourage tough questioning, and clear expressions of disagreement, but not the "silencing" of alternative views. Universities are sites for the contestation of values, not places where everyone has to agree. That means that speakers we don't like, or even respect, should be allowed to put forward their views … [which can] then be challenged and argued over.”

Dr. Toope understands that free speech – and the benefits which free expression confers on society, democracy and the pursuit of truth – can only exist when law and order prevail. Free speech cannot benefit taxpayer-funded universities when authorities allow the mob to use physical obstruction to silence unpopular views.

Every noble principle is rendered worthless when mob rule replaces the rule of law. For example, in 1957 the first nine Black students tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which had recently been desegregated by court order. The court order proved to be worthless when Arkansas National Guardsmen, along with police, stood by while a white mob pelted the black students with stones, assaulted them, and threatened their lives. It was not until the federal government stepped in with appropriate security measures – and upheld the rule of law – that the principle of racial equality became meaningful.

UBC’s past decisions to condone mob rule on campus contradict its own statement on academic freedom, which declares that students and members of the public have the freedom “to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.” UBC claims that this freedom of expression extends not only to “ideas that are safe and accepted,” but also to “ideas which may be unpopular or even abhorrent.” Any suppression of academic freedom, says UBC, “would prevent the University from carrying out its primary functions: instruction and the pursuit of knowledge.”

UBC claims that it will not tolerate “behaviour that obstructs free and full discussion of ideas.” This commitment to free speech isn’t worth anything when UBC allows people to use obstruction to silence unpopular minority opinion on campus. Dr. Toope and UBC’s statement on academic freedom have it right. All that needs to happen on March 10 is for UBC to render these noble principles meaningful by taking action in accordance with its own principles.