3 min

Free speech vs poisoned atmosphere

Lesbian couple's rights complaint to be heard in Nov

The atmosphere at two public meetings of the Surrey School Board has spurred a lesbian couple to launch a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

But civil libertarians say the complaint is misguided.

It wasn’t the board’s June 2003 decision to keep specific books about same-sex parents out of elementary classes that forms the basis of the complaint. It was the atmosphere of the meeting itself.

Carol Pegura and Lori Kim Forster are alleging the procedures used by the board in the public process to arrive at that decision exposed them to discrimination and hatred from speakers and audience members.

But that’s the way politics is, say civil libertarians. In a democracy, public meetings should allow the widest possible expressions of political belief. All citizens need to expect that others have different opinions than themselves-especially when it comes to issues like religion and sex-and that some people will express those opinions in offensive terms, says a spokesperson for the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA).

The complaint of Pegura and Forster arises from two Surrey School Board meetings on the issue of gay-positive books held Jun 3 and Jun 9 of last year. Those meetings were held as a result of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in the James Chamberlain v. Surrey School Board case. The court had sent the issue back to the board for consideration as to whether teachers could use the books-Asha’s Mums; Belinda’s Bouquet; and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dads, Blue Dads. The court ordered the decision be based on to curriculum criteria and the broad principles of tolerance and non-sectarianism underlying the provincial School Act.

As a result, the two meetings were planned last June to obtain community input on the issue. But, allege Pegura and Forster, the board created a process for those meetings that resulted in a poisonous atmosphere which was discriminatory against them as lesbians.

Murray Mollard, executive director of the BCCLA was at one of the meetings. He agrees there were things said that could cause people consternation.

But, he says, “Democracy’s a bit of a hurly-burly world. You’ve got to let that happen. In matters of religion and sex, there are high emotions running and statements made that others might feel are hurtful.”

The women allege a series of procedural violations by the board, including:

• That the board did not require delegations to follow prescribed rules for applying to speak at the meeting;

• That the board failed to advise the public and delegations of the objectives and guidelines for presentations;

• That the board failed to require delegations to read the books in question;

• That the board did not advise the audience of the rules of order by which the meeting would be run;

• That the board failed to inform delegations what topics they were permitted to speak on;

• And that the board failed to provide an advance agenda to allow gay and lesbian presenters to protect themselves from hateful comments expressed at the meetings.

Forster and Pegura were disturbed by the Jun 3 meeting and contacted the board to complain about the process which had created what they saw as a poisonous environment.

According to a brief from the Community Legal Assistance Society obtained by Xtra West, the complaints may have been avoided had the board acquiesced to the women’s request to postpone the Jun 9, 2003 meeting until new procedures could be established.

The board refused.

As a result the pair filed their complaint two days later.

While a videotape exists of the second meeting, none exists of the first, says the women’s lawyer, Tim Timberg. As a result, the lesbian parents are looking for witnesses to address the human rights tribunal as to what happened that night.

The tribunal is scheduled to hear the complaint Nov 15.

Surrey School Board chair Mary Polak says that running an open public discussion is very challenging.

“We thought we did what we were open to do. We happened to believe we had in place all we had to have in place.” The board wanted a free and open discussion, says Polak, and that’s what happened.