Does the Charter of Rights and Freedoms apply to Canada’s university students, even if they are pro-life?
That was the question before the Vancouver the Supreme Court last week, as it heard a petition from the pro-life Youth Protecting Youth club and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association targeting the University of Victoria.
At stake is whether the University of Victoria student society (UVSS) has the right to punish student clubs for pro-life activities and whether the University of Victoria has the right to enforce those punishments.
While the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is officially pro-choice, it is supporting YPY because it believes universities have to obey the Charter.
“Are those of us who are pro-choice so frightened of civil, peaceful speech against our conviction, that we must take refuge in quasi-legal antics to harass, frighten, and ultimately punish those who dare to challenge them?” asked BCCLA spokesman John Dixon, when the BCCLA first took the case last year.
Anastasia Pearse of the National Campus Life Network told LifeSiteNews that repeated experience has shown that when supporters of abortion gain power on campus, they use it to silence advocates for life.
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“It happens across Canada,” she said. “They will do or say whatever they think they can get away with to silence us.”
The conflict between the club and the university broke out after YPY hosted a “Choice Chain” along one of the campus’s busiest walkways, during which members held large pictures of aborted and healthy unborn babies, and invited comment from passersby.
The first time this happened, the UVSS received three complaints. The second time, in 2012, there were 90.
“I think that speaks to the escalation of the situation,” Tara Paterson, UVSS chairperson, told a local newspaper at the time. “Obviously their tactics and the reaction to their tactics are escalating.”
The student society ruled that YPY had “harassed” many students, and denied the club the prized “booking privilege” which all student society-endorsed clubs enjoy, which allows them to use university property for events at no cost.
YPY nonetheless requested permission from the university for another Choice Chain and received it, until UVSS informed the administration of its ruling revoking the club’s booking privilege.
The administration promptly revoked its permit one day before the Choice Chain was scheduled. However, YPY went ahead with the event anyway, bringing threats of academic discipline from the administration.
As far as YPY and the BCCLA are concerned, this showed a complete disregard for “YPY’s members’ rights to free expression, assembly and religion.”
While the Charter allows reasonable limits on freedom of expression (i.e., no protests in the middle of the road without a permit), YPY and the Civil Liberties Association argue that the university and the student society never considered the group’s rights.
The petition from YPY and the BCCLA also argues that the University of Victoria should be bound by the Charter, because the university is created and funded by government, a majority of their governing board members are selected by government and any board members can be fired by the government.
The petitioners are seeking the Supreme Court’s declaration that the Charter applies on U Vic campus, and has been violated.
“The decision should affect students across British Columbia whichever way the decision goes,” said Pearse. “We should respect people with different viewpoints than ours enough to dialogue with them rather than censor them.”