9 min

Can we talk? Notes from Canada’s free speech front line

Can gays overcome their urge to muzzle and instead champion frank debate?

BATTLE GROUND. Carleton publicly grappled with two censorship cases recently: whether or not to fund an anti-abortion club (they do now) and whether to allow a controversial dancehall musician to perform at one of their events (they didn't). Credit: Photo by Pat Croteau

Eight months of indecision at the University of Guelph left the anti-abortion group on that campus with its back against the wall, stripped of official club accreditation and unsure of its rights on campus.

The Central Student Association at the school claimed that Life Choice violated the student union’s bylaws, which mandate that student resources contribute to a pro-choice environment. After the student union’s October decision to deny the group club status, students said the union was trampling on freedom of expression. The debate reached an impasse. Then, after a lot of hand wringing, the club was fully reaccredited in February.

Although Life Choice scored a victory at the University of Guelph, the issue is far from resolved in a wider context.

Last November, Campus Pro-Life set up a display at the University of Calgary that included images comparing abortion to the genocide in Rwanda, among other atrocities. The school’s administration ordered the club to turn its signs inward, but the group refused.

As a result, the club had its accreditation revoked. The stakes were raised in February when the university called in the police. Several members of Campus Pro-Life were charged with trespassing and, unless they changed their tune regarding the display of graphic imagery, were threatened with non-academic punishment that could include expulsion.

Guelph and Calgary are flashpoints of an ongoing, nationwide feud that dissolves the line between left and right. The battle pits human-rights groups on campuses in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, and Ontario against a cherished human right: free speech.

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv often finds herself in a strange position during such confrontations. She is the director of the Freedom of Expression Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, an organization that has often come to the defence of pro-life groups even as it supports the liberalization of abortion law.

As it turns out, it’s often student unions that are more risk-averse than their university administrations. And although the goals of student unions are laudable, their tactics are unacceptable, says Aviv.

“I think what happens on university campuses is that you have very well-intentioned equality seekers who are hurt and offended by some of the negative and offensive statements that are made by a variety of groups,” she says. “It’s ironic that this movement is being led by progressive university students [who] once would have been fighting for their freedom of expression.”

The CCLA became concerned enough about the treatment of pro-life groups on campuses that it sent a letter to the Canadian Federation of Students at the end of January that emphasized the importance of freedom of expression, which the civil-liberties group believes could be “the most crucial” of all freedoms in a democratic system.

The letter denounced a motion passed at a CFS semi-annual meeting held at Carleton University last May. There, the association of over 80 student unions declared that “member locals that refuse to allow anti-choice organizations access to their resources and space be supported.”

CFS representatives quickly point out that no campuses are forced to refuse funding, space or accreditation to pro-life groups. York Federation of Students vice-president external Gilary Massa, who spoke to the motion at that May meeting, told Capital Xtra at the time that it simply provided moral support to locals who refused resources to pro-life groups.

“That motion has nothing to do with free speech or anything like that,” she said. “It’s just saying member locals that take a particular position are supported by the federation and provided resources to combat whatever it is that they are facing on their particular campus.”


That doesn’t sit well with those whose expression is being muzzled. Cameron Wilson, the vice-president of Calgary’s Campus Pro-Life, begs to differ with any assertion that renouncing a club’s accreditation is anything other than censorship.

“The only way that we’re ever really going to be able to promote free speech is by talking,” he says. “If we don’t talk, then people aren’t going to understand what we’re doing, and they might think we’re just trying to intentionally hurt people who have had abortions.”

Jasmine Ing, the co-chair of the University of Calgary club Queers on Campus, watched the Campus Pro-Life controversy unfold on the ground. She stresses that while she shares concerns about the violation of women’s rights, pro-lifers should only be censored as a last resort.

“It’s extremely important for free speech to exist for queer groups on campus,” she says. “Some people say, for instance, the films that we play or the events that we hold are counter to their moral beliefs.”

Indeed, Ing’s words illustrate the point. After all, gays and lesbians have often been on the wrong side of the censorship equation.

The gay community fought a 20-year battle against Canada Customs over the importation of gay literature and erotica. It resulted in the Little Sister’s decision at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2000, but Canada Customs (now the Canada Border Services Agency) has simply ignored the ruling.

The Body Politic, predecessor to the Xtra chain, faced three obscenity trials in the 1980s. Although the news magazine successfully fended off each iteration of the case, it nearly bankrupted the organization.

Ottawa has witnessed three years of controversies surrounding Capital Xtra’s distribution in public and private spaces, including a fight at city hall to have the paper distributed in community centres. The resistance shows that affirmations of gay sex and sexuality are still targeted.

And even at universities, gay events can still be greeted with blowback.

“If we have a [queer] speaker, we’re promoting a lifestyle they don’t agree with,” says Ing. “But because what we’re doing doesn’t cause any harm, we’re protected under those same free speech rules, and we definitely support the ability to be able to do things that are positive for us.”

Gays rely on free speech — and that puts the community in dangerously hypocritical territory when it comes to shutting down anti-gay expression.

Sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada specifically outlaw hate propaganda. But there is a broader provision — which, in some cases, overlaps with the criminal code — in the Canadian Human Rights Act and its provincial counterparts.

Ing echoes the sentiment of the hate speech law.

“I think we would draw the line when it starts to put our members at risk.”


Some recent actions by both provincial and federal human rights tribunals, who critics claim are now in the business of adjudicating speech, have blurred the line between offensive speech and hate speech, says Aviv.

“The laws that have attempted to regulate and censor that speech have been over-broad, and they’ve captured a whole host of expression that we would never want to see limited,” said Aviv. “[Courts] haven’t succeeded in coming up with language which can distinguish between hatred and strong disapproval,” she says.

But Aviv points to the work of Richard Moon as a proposal that comes close to “workable.”

Last October, Moon submitted a report to the Canadian Human Rights Commission concerning the regulation of hate speech on the Internet, which suggested removing Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

This sub-section calls speech discriminatory if it “is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.”

In essence, Moon suggested prosecuting all hateful speech under the criminal code and removing any ability of human-rights tribunals from doing so. (See law professor Brenda Cossman’s column for a further exploration of this issue.)

Barring that kind of legislative reform, though, Aviv is unsure how to move forward in a fair manner under the current framework.


While student unions have done most of the public blundering, they’re not the only ones who’ve courted controversy when it comes to freedom of speech.

Students had barely cracked open their books for a new semester in January when a committee of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees moved to ban Israeli academics from teaching or speaking at Canadian institutions if they didn’t expressly condemn that country’s attacks on the Gaza Strip. This, with the strong support of CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan.

Media across the country quickly and decisively condemned CUPE’s proposal. Editorials in the National Post, Ottawa Sun, and Halifax Chronicle-Herald lambasted Ryan for attempting to censor professors based entirely on their ethnicity and not on the content of their research or lectures.

The backlash eased somewhat when the president of the union’s national office, Paul Moist, rejected the move about a week after it was proposed. The motion was then tempered to target Israeli academic institutions, not any individual academics, and it passed a convention of university-based CUPE locals on Feb 22. Ryan later admitted the original motion went too far.

The initial CUPE motion to ban Israeli academics from Canadian institutions stirred similar emotions among a large number of Canadian professors. University of Ottawa political science professor Costanza Musu, who teaches a course about the Arab-Israeli conflict and wrote a strongly worded defence of Israeli professors on the National Post’s editorial page, claimed that students ought to be presented with as many perspectives as possible.

“I cannot fathom how I would be fulfilling my duty as a professor if I decided to stop inviting Israeli speakers and to prevent students from listening to them and form their own opinion,” she writes.

In an interview, Musu said that although some academics could “use the classroom as a kind of pulpit”, that kind of conduct would be rejected by the professoriate.

“I would not allow anyone to come into my classroom and use the opportunity given by my classroom — and the fact that my students are there taking notes — to incite violence,” she said.

Only weeks after the CUPE uproar settled, however, the University of Ottawa’s administration entered a debate about free speech on their own campus. This time, the subject was Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of events on campuses around the world intended to promote Palestinian solidarity. The admin disallowed an event poster due to the nature of its illustration and apparent message: the poster featured an Israeli military helicopter in Gaza firing a missile at a Palestinian child holding a teddy bear.

“All posters approved by the Communications Office must promote a campus culture where all members of the community can play a part in a declaration of human rights, recognizing the inherent dignity and equal rights of all students,” read a statement e-mailed to the student group that posted the material, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), which concluded that the posters did not meet that criteria.

“We feel that they’re trying to impede our freedom of speech and freedom of expression and not show what happened in Gaza and how unfortunate it was,” says SPHR spokesman Mahmoud Hmouz.

On its website, the university released an official statement that concluded that the posters were disallowed because of “the use of an image that was inflammatory and capable of inciting confrontation.”


It was from this complicated sludge — an academic world unable to clearly separate unsafe from uncomfortable, inciting debate from inciting hatred — that Carleton University emerged as a protector of gays at the expense of free speech.

The Carleton University Students’ Association is no stranger to the censorship fray, having flirted with denying an anti-abortion group its student-club status in 2006.

The censorship question again consumed the union again in late 2007. Under pressure, they cancelled a concert scheduled for Oct 4 featuring rapper Elephant Man, an artist with a history of performing homophobic songs. It was at the request of two gay groups — Egale Canada and the Stop Murder Music Coalition — which expressed their strong disapproval of Elephant Man’s show.

Before cancelling, CUSA made attempts to have Elephant Man publicly denounce his own lyrics and sign the Reggae Compassionate Act, a petition that artists sign promising “not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community.”

Elephant Man would have signed the document at a press conference attended by local media, but Stop Murder Music Coalition spokesman Akim Larcher told the Carleton student paper, the Charlatan, that such a gesture would mean nothing unless he signed the document in his home country of Jamaica.

After a hectic firestorm, then-CUSA exec Osmel Maynes decided to cancel the show, just days before the event.

In a recent interview, Maynes says it was a tough decision that could not have pleased everybody. He was disappointed to cancel the show and wished that critics had been more open-minded.

“A lot of students were upset,” he says. “And not only students, but people in the Caribbean community who wanted to see the show.”

“We wanted to give out information during the concert, because at least it would give an avenue for people to be educated on the matter,” Maynes continues, adding that he thought Elephant Man had turned over a new leaf.

“[Cancelling the concert] is kind of saying that someone cannot change.”

If she were to be confronted by a similar situation in Calgary, Ing wasn’t clear about what she would do. But she did reaffirm the importance of free speech and emphasized that condemning speech should not be a first reaction.

“As a queer group on campus, we definitely have a responsibility to critically evaluate a situation and make sure that if it’s not putting ourselves at risk, then maybe things need to go forward so that, similarly, we can be afforded the right to talk about things that are important to us in the future.”