In a stunning reversal of recent rulings in nearby provinces, British Columbia Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson has ruled that Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply to pro-life students seeking space on the University of Victoria campus to demonstrate.
Former U Vic student Cameron Cote and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association had petitioned for a declaration that the university administration had breached the Youth Protecting Youth pro-life club’s Charter rights when, in early 2013, it refused permission to display pictures of aborted and healthy babies.
But the Charter only applies to government bodies and Hinkson ruled that the university, though funded mostly by taxpayers, and incorporated by the provincial government, which also appoints a majority of its directors, was acting privately when it decided to deny YPY use of its property. So even though the decision was based on the content of YPY’s pro-life message, the Charter protection of free speech and assembly does not apply.
“We were very surprised,” Cote told LifeSiteNews. “This was completely unexpected. Of course, it’s absolutely vital to pro-life groups such as ours that free speech rights be protected because our message is unpopular. We need this protection to be able to reach students, young mothers and fathers and save lives.”
While the Ontario courts have found the Charter does not protect pro-life students, earlier this year Saskatchewan anti-homosexuality crusader Bill Whatcott won a Charter case over pamphleting at the University of Regina. In 2013 he won another judgement over doing the same thing at the University of Calgary.
But in both instances the legal question was whether or not Whatcott was trespassing. In invoking the Criminal Code to get Whatcott off their campuses, the schools were acting in a governmental role and so, the courts found, they fell under the Charter.
On the other hand, the University of Victoria, by simply refusing YPY space to air its views, was acting as a private landlord, ruled Hinkson. But what Hinkson isn’t getting, said John Carpay, head of the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom, is that universities respect freedom of speech, and alternately impose censorship, very selectively.
“Universities censor pro-life students for showing graphic pictures of aborted babies,” said Carpay. “But universities allow Falun Gong supporters showing graphic pictures of members tortured by the Chinese government. They also allow those promoting use of seat belts to show graphic images of people with their heads halfway through windshields.”
“Free expression is a cornerstone of democracy,” Carpay added. “But a lot of people seem to believe they have a right not be offended, and this outweighs free speech.”
Cote told LifeSiteNews that universities ought to be bastions of free speech, not censorship. “The University of Victoria brags in its vision statements about supporting intellectual freedom and diversity, but not for us.” He sees another inconsistency: in a previous legal action the University of Victoria argued it was completely independent of the student union society, when the latter denied YPY club status. In this case, however, the university was actually enforcing the student society’s censure of YPY’s pro-life message by denying it space to protest.
YPY’s battle with the U Vic student society goes back at least to 1999, when the pro-life club won a human rights discrimination ruling. In 2010, a second human rights complaint against the society was settled out of court in the club’s favor.
In all these cases pro-abortion students complained that they felt “harassed” by YPY’s posters, pamphlets, or pictures. The student society then suspended the group’s club status, resulting in the removal of the privilege to use university property for its activities.
As well, pro-abortion protesters have stolen YPY displays, covered others in cat feces, and pelted members’ belongings with smoke bombs and stink bombs with no response from the university administration. “They’ve created a culture of bullying. They can get away with treating pro-life students badly,” said Anastasia Pearse, western co-ordinator of the National Campus Life Network.
The BC Civil Liberties Association said it hadn’t decided whether to appeal the ruling, but Cote told LifeSiteNews he thought it would be a good idea. Carpay said, “I would really encourage them to appeal.”