Dean Bicknell/Canwest News ServiceAlanna Campbell, leftand Asia Strezynski from Campus Pro-Life hold up their summons February 2, 2009 charging them with trespassing following a controversial anti-abortion demonstration at the …
CALGARY — Over the past few weeks, Calgary police have been turning up at the homes of anti-abortion university students, charging them with trespassing on the very campus where they are enrolled in classes. On Monday, members of Campus Pro-Life visited the University of Calgary once more, to announce that the charges would not stop them from continuing their abortion awareness campaign.
Calling the charges a “blatant attack on free speech,” Campus Pro-Life president Leah Hallman stood in front of the school’s MacKimmie Library to deliver a speech that would cast her organization’s dispute with the school’s governors as an historic battle for Canadian liberties: “The road to the liberty we enjoy in Canada was long and fraught with deadly peril. Many brave men and woman took it upon themselves to bear upward the sacred torch of freedom to greater heights,” she proclaimed. “Once more, Canada faces a challenge to test her commitment to the ideals upon which she was founded, and upon which her society now stands.”
The charges — offering a maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine — make good on a threat made by administrators in November. At the time, the school had ordered Campus Pro-Life to censor a display set up along a heavily trafficked campus route.
Entitled the Genocide Awareness Project, it featured graphic images of aborted fetuses juxtaposed with photos of murdered victims of the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide.
Though the exhibit had been installed several times in previous years, administrators last fall ordered the images turned away from public view last year.
When organizers refused, the school threatened expulsion and criminal charges.
Last month, after Campus Pro-Life notified the university that it would put up the Genocide Awareness Project again in the spring, police began charging members over the November display. So far, three students have been ordered to appear in court on Feb. 27.
The group expects at least three more, who worked the exhibit, to be charged.
Ms. Hallman argues that the university endorses a prejudice against anti-abortion groups by regularly permitting graphic images to be displayed for some causes — in November, another, nearby exhibit displayed upsetting photographs of Falun Gong members allegedly tortured by Chinese authorities — while prohibiting images of abortion.
The university has refused interviews since declaring this a “legal matter” last year. It issued a news release on Monday saying that it “has attempted for several years to find a reasonable compromise with Campus Pro-Life that would give members of the University community the choice to view or not view the Genocide Awareness Project display.”
It is now “working to have this issue resolved in the appropriate manner.”
But the head of a legal defence group backing Campus Pro-Life’s speech rights said that, because the university receives public funding specifically to promote intellectual inquiry, it cannot use trespass laws to pick and choose which messages students discuss.
“Using the trespass legislation to suppress one viewpoint is a gross misuse of what that legislation is all about,” said John Carpay, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation.
Several professors have also criticized the administration’s approach. “This shows that senior administration has really lost touch with the purpose of a university, which is precisely to discuss questions that members of the public find difficult to consider,” said University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper.
Last week, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association sent a letter advising the Canadian Federation of Students that it risked infringing on speech freedoms by supporting students unions that deny funding to groups opposed to abortion.
In recent years, student councils at York University, University of Guelph, Lakehead University, Carleton University and Memorial University have attempted to place limits on or cut funding to anti-abortion groups.