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Guelph adds fuel to free speech fire

Debates at Canadian campuses turning to banning controversial groups

Freedoms of expression and equality were on trial at a Nov 26 board meeting of the University of Guelph’s Central Student Association, which debated the merits of Life Choice.

That group was denied accreditation as a club at the school earlier this year. When Life Choice requested accreditation as a club for the fall semester, the request was denied unanimously by the student union’s board of directors at its Oct 1 meeting, said Joel Harnest, the CSA’s finance and human resources commissioner.

Harnest attributes the denial to the board’s belief that Life Choice “broke with some CSA policy” — namely, the student union’s status as an officially pro-choice organization.

The decision was appealed, and the CSA’s board of directors delayed dealing with the issue decisively until its most recent meeting last week.

At that meeting, directors spent the better part of the evening debating next steps in the matter and finally decided — at around midnight — to strike a tribunal that would make recommendations towards the end of January.

Harnest says the tribunal will be composed of three board directors who were not ratified in their positions before Oct. 2. The tribunal’s terms of reference were unavailable at press time.

Life Choice president Cara Benninger is uncomfortable with the process by which the tribunal was created and directed.

“It was the CSA who originally made the decision not to accredit us, and now they’re going to be choosing this tribunal and calling it unbiased,” she says.

Benninger would have preferred that her club play a role in creating the committee, she says.

Juggling rights

Harnest denies that the Life Choice affair has anything to do with freedom of expression. The CSA released a statement concerning the affair on Nov 17 that elaborated on that point.

“The CSA recognizes that there are responsibilities that come with the right to free speech. It is not a right that can be used as an excuse for not respecting the right of women to control their own bodies,” part of the statement reads.

“Though Life Choice members have a right to hold these opinions, it is not the responsibility of the CSA to support them, since we are a pro-choice organization.”

Harnest adds that because the CSA is a private organization, it doesn’t technically need to adhere to the tenets of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“As a private organization, there is precedent that it’s not our fundamental job to hold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he says. “That applies to the government, not necessarily to a private organization.”

Benninger disagrees with the CSA’s rationale for not renewing her club’s status. Neither the club nor its members ever threatened any student’s equality rights, she says.

“I don’t see how expressing a viewpoint puts anyone’s equality into question,” she says. “[CSA executives] were specifically talking about the rights of women students, and many of our club members are women — and most of our executive is made up of women.”

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the director of the Freedom of Expression project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, travelled to Guelph to make a presentation to the CSA.

While she would have defended Life Choice’s right to student-union space and resources, Aviv was not asked to make a presentation.

Referencing other examples across Canada, Aviv says that student unions — even when they believe they are acting in students’ collective interests — end up judging some fundamental rights as more important than others.

“It is student governments that seem to be clamping down on speech and seem to be confusing their attempts to do good — their attempts to promote equality — with this notion that expression has to give way in the face of other values,” she says.

Aviv said that just because a student union is pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-life movements should be barred from drawing upon student space or resources.

“I think that education and persuasion are legitimate forms of expression for a university campus. I think that even if they had called for the criminalization of abortion, this is a legitimate debate,” she says.

Root of the problem

The denial of accreditation came several months after Life Choice held a “Life Fair” in a prominent university courtyard that rallied against abortion.

“The CSA decided that it will not be done in the name of our organization which respects the right of all women to control their bodies.”

The student union released a statement on Nov 17 that explained how that event played into Life Choice’s accreditation denial.

“The CSA received many complaints after the Life Fair because it created an unsafe environment for students who did not want to participate in the Life Fair,” the statement reads.

Aviv said that “unsafe” might be the wrong term to describe the situation on the ground during the Life Fair.

“I don’t deny that for some people walking through and seeing the fair, some of the messages that were put out, that it might have been upsetting, that it might have been disturbing,” says Aviv.

But she added that barring such disturbing messages or images from campus spaces would mean a number of other controversial topics could also not be debated on campus.

For its part, the CSA never attempted to ban Life Choice from the campus, and its Nov 17 statement made that clear.

“Pro-life groups are free to organize on campus. The difference is that the CSA decided that it will not be done in the name of our organization, which respects the right of all women to control their bodies.”