EDMONTON, Alberta, January 6, 2020 (jccf.ca) – In a victory for pro-life speech on Alberta campuses, the Alberta Court of Appeal today rejected the University of Alberta’s imposition of a $17,500 security fee on UAlberta Pro-Life. Demanded by the University in 2016, this security fee had prevented the small student club from hosting educational displays on campus.
The case arose in March of 2015, when the University of Alberta condoned the behaviour of a mob that physically obstructed a peaceful, stationary pro-life display on campus, which had been authorized and approved by the University. The mob used sheets, towels, banners, and mega-phones, making it impossible for passers-by to view the signs. The mob effectively silenced intellectual discussion and inquiry, in violation of the Code of Student Behaviour. Prior to this physical obstruction and disruption of a university-approved campus event, the University’s president had stated publicly that the pro-life group was entitled to express its opinions on campus. Then-president Indira Samarasekera stated the University must facilitate and protect the peaceful expression of all views, regardless of popularity.
Dr. Samarasekera’s statement was not taken seriously by campus security or by the students who violated the Code of Student Behaviour. The University’s campus security repeatedly told members of the obstructing mob that they were violating the Code of Student Behaviour, which expressly prohibits interrupting and obstructing university-related activities and events. Yet campus security took no action to stop the obstruction, or to discipline the students who identified themselves publicly and boasted on social media about their success in silencing a message they disagreed with.
In 2016, UAlberta Pro-Life applied again for a two-day campus event with a stationary display. The University then demanded a $17,500 security fee as a condition for going ahead with this campus event.
In an email, the University demanded that pro-life students pay for the wages of security guards and police, and costs of barricading the venue, and pay for the potential misconduct of people violating the University’s Code of Student Behaviour by obstructing and disrupting the display. Rather than render an invoice to the self-identified and self-confessed rule-breakers, the University instead told the small pro-life club that it could no longer set up a display on campus unless it first paid $17,500 in security fees. Unable to pay $17,500, UAlberta Pro-Life was forced to cancel the event that was planned for February 2016.
“In issuing this demand, the University of Alberta ignored the fact that any threat to safety and security that may have existed on campus came uniquely from those who physically obstructed and loudly interrupted a university-approved event,” stated lawyer John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represented the students in their court action.
In its court application, filed in April of 2016, UAlberta Pro-Life sought a declaration that the University’s imposition of the $17,500 security fee on the club was illegal and unjustifiably violated the fundamental Canadian value of freedom of expression, protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court application asked for an order prohibiting the University from imposing such financial burdens on law-abiding students in future.
The court application also sought a ruling that the University made an unreasonable and therefore illegal decision in March of 2015 to condone the conduct of students who disrupted and blockaded the University-authorized UAlberta Pro-Life campus event, in violation of the Code of Student Behaviour. Although the University had advance notice that a mob was being organized to obstruct the display, and although Dr. Samarasekera had warned that any misbehaviour would be investigated and prosecuted, the University of Alberta Protective Services (UAPS) did nothing to stop the blockading and physical obstruction. UAPS also did not photograph or seek to identify any blockading student, even though the Code clearly prohibits students from disrupting or obstructing University-related functions.
Before taking court action, UAlberta Pro-Life first filed a formal complaint in March 2015 with UAPS against the disruptive students who had violated the Code of Student Behaviour. It took UAPS over eight months to release a decision. On November 30, 2015, UAPS confirmed that the University would not charge or prosecute students who had disrupted, blocked and obstructed the March 2015 display on campus. This decision came in spite of UAPS possessing ample photographic and video evidence as to which students had violated the Code of Student Behaviour, in addition to social media posts in which these blockading students publicly boasted about their own behaviour.
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ruled in favour of the University in October 2017. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) intervened before the Alberta Court of Appeal, in support of freedom of expression. The students appealed, and now have a decision from the Alberta Court of Appeal.