Campus freedom index documents censorship of pro-life groups

Carleton pro-life student Ruth Lobo was arrested in 2010.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has released its 2012 Campus Freedom Index which measures and rates the state of free speech at Canadian universities and gives 28 F grades and just three As. The JCCF’s Index, and an accompanying longer report, The State of Campus Free Speech in 2012, examines 35 universities and student unions across Canada to measure both their policies and actions as it pertains to freedom of speech.

The index and report, co-written by John Carpay and Michael Kennedy, grade universities from Victoria to Newfoundland  for “university policies and principles,” “university actions and practices,” “student union policies and principles,” and “student union actions and practices.” (By “university” the report means university administration.) The authors found that having strong policies do not necessarily protect freedom of speech, pointing to the University of Toronto which they gave an A for policies and principles but an F for actions and practices. As Carpay and Kennedy note, “actions speak louder than words.”

Overall, 12 universities get an F grade for actions and principles. Also, ten university student unions rate an F in terms of actions and practices. Only one university received an A grade for actions and practices (St. Thomas University in Fredericton) and no student union earned such a grade.

Kennedy states in a press release, “These results confirm what many observers have long known: higher education in Canada has failed its duty of fostering free inquiry, critical reflection, honest debate, and the pursuit of truth.”

The authors note that administration and student union policies that do not expressly guarantee the free speech rights of all students “leave the door open to being abused as a tool to censor the expression of ideas that some may find offensive.” However, as the case of the University of Toronto illustrates, even unambiguous policies do not guarantee freedom of speech will be upheld and protected.

The report notes that since the 1980s, the University of Toronto Students for Life conducted pro-life campaigns using graphic images and that in 1983 the display was shut down by Metro police with written authorization from the university administration and that in the2000s, it had restrictions placed on it that forced UTSL to set up its display in a horseshoe formation to reduce the visibility of the club’s pro-life message. The report states, “The U of T has no qualms about issuing a censorship demand against one campus group that is not issued against any other group or club on campus.” UTSL refuses to comply with the restrictions and have moved their campaign off-campus onto the public streets.

The introduction to the Index notes it “sheds light on the significant role that Canada’s student unions play in damaging the free speech climate on campus,” and that “radical factions of the student body can easily sweep student council elections” and impose their “political or ideological agendas” upon the student population, even in areas “not related to the students’ interest in post-secondary education.”

Many student unions are officially pro-abortion and have broadly defined anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies to exclude pro-life activity on campus.

In recent  years, pro-life clubs have faced increased discrimination on university campuses across the country. The report looks at current policies but takes into consideration recent years actions and practices, and there are 68 references to pro-life clubs having their freedom of speech or assembly abrogated or denied in the 187-page report. (Most of the other infringements on student freedoms centered on guest speakers and events pertaining to Middle Eastern issues and religion, notably Islam and Judaism.)

The litany of actions taken against pro-life groups has appeared in The Interim over the year: student unions refusing to certify campus pro-life clubs, administration or unions imposing burdensome restrictions on public events that render them ineffective or too costly, failing to protect students and events from hostile activists, and in cases at Carleton and the University of Calgary having the police arrest pro-life activists for ignoring university directives that unfairly impinged upon their freedom of expression and assembly.

In a press release, the authors note numerous university student unions have imposed restrictions on the speech of pro-life groups “that are not imposed on any other campus club,” including making certification of the club dependent on accepting the student union’s pro-abortion position or understanding of anti-discrimination policies. The Index notes that the Carleton University Students’ Association has a “Discrimination on Campus Policy” that states CUSA will not support “any campaign, distribution, solicitation, lobbying effort, display, event, etc., that seeks to limit or remove a woman’s right to choose her options in the case of pregnancy,” and thus would not fund or permit use of their space to clubs that oppose abortion. The Index notes  that in 2011/2012 CUSA continued to deny Carleton Lifeline official club status “based solely on the club’s belief ‘in the equal rights of the unborn’.”

The authors state that “high school seniors looking for a campus that is going to nurture instead of stifle their ability to speak their mind and engage in critical debate” can use the Index to determine which university most respect free speech.

Carpay is a Calgary lawyer and executive director of the JCCF who has represented pro-life students at the University of Calgary as they battled the school’s administration. Kennedy is a Nova Scotia-based researcher.

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