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Student lobby vows to support censors

CFS to help schools that deny equal treatment to anti-abortion groups

STRANGLING DEBATE. Can't students be both pro-choice and in favour of free speech? Credit: (John Michael)

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is stifling debate and discouraging free speech on university campuses, say some student groups and outside observers.

At a meeting in Ottawa on May 25, the CFS voted to support student unions that refuse funding or space to pro-life groups on their campuses. The motion was introduced by the York Federation of Students (YFS) and was overwhelmingly supported by delegates from Ontario, British Columbia and the Maritimes.

A small group of prairies-based schools voted against the motion. Aaron Glenn, a vice-president of the University of Manitoba Graduate Students’ Association, suggests that it violates students’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“We see it as an affront to freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” he says.

“[University is] a place for debate and considering things, and if someone has an opinion or speaks out against something, I think that should be their right.”

YFS vice-president external Gilary Massa, who spoke in favour of the motion during debate, denied limiting any students’ rights.

“That motion has nothing to do with free speech or anything like that,” she insists.

“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.”

CFS members will not be forced to deny funding to pro-life groups, says Massa.

Jonny Sopotiuk is the president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union. He points out that some pro-life groups tend to be more open to debating the issue than others.

More aggressive groups, he says, are those whose funding requests should be denied.

“Student groups [at the U of M] must go through a process to ensure that they are open and inclusive of all students,” he says, adding that anti-choice groups at the University of Manitoba “have, in our experience, not been open to debate and have been making a threatening environment — especially for women. I wouldn’t say those groups are open and inclusive to all members.”

Pro-choice activists and gay rights groups have a long affinity in Canada. Both appeal to the same basic principle: people ought to have control over their own bodies. On that basis, the Canadian Federation of Students’ ardent pro-choice position would seem to be a step in the right direction.

At the same time, however, gay rights were — and continue to be — won on the basis of activists’ freedom to speak out without fear of censorship, even when their opinions are controversial.

The gay community’s history of censorship includes protracted battles against the Ontario Censor Board and the Canada Border Services Agency (where Little Sister’s bookstore was only able to win a partial victory in 2000.) Most recently, queers of all stripes have opposed C-10, a bill that would grant the minister of heritage the power to deny tax credits to risqué films.

Grace Pastine, the litigation director for the BC Civil Liberties Association, says that her organization is very supportive of a woman’s right to choose.

She adds, however, that the abortion debate is “very complex and controversial,” has divided campuses across Canada, and is unlikely to reach any kind of consensus.

“We really think that organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Students and the student-union groups that are members of that organization, have a strong and at least moral imperative — if not legal imperative — to be inclusive of different points of view,” she says.

Pastine acknowledges that some pro-life groups could legitimately be denied funding based on their specific activities. But at the end of the day, she says, more debate is ultimately better for both sides of the issue.

“I just think that’s a pragmatic approach. You’re unlikely to change people’s minds by simply not allowing the debate to exist at all.”

As passed, the motion read: “Be it resolved that member locals that refuse to allow anti-choice organisations access to their resources and space be supported; and be it further resolved that a pro-choice organising kit be created that may include materials such as a fact sheet, buttons, contact information for local pro-choice organisations and research on anti-choice organisations and the conservative think-tanks that fund them.”

This isn’t the first time that the refusal of funding to anti-abortion has been called censorship by some observers. Critics include the Heartbeat Group, a pro-life organization at BC’s Capilano College. That group filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal after being refused funding and claimed their freedom of speech was violated. Heartbeat recently won a settlement and will receive official club status in the fall.