Thursday, January 23, 2020

Canadian Court Says University Need Not Discipline Abortion Counter-Protesters

In UAlberta Pro-Life v Governors of the University of Alberta, (Alberta Ct. App., Jan. 6, 2020), an appellate court in the Canadian province of Alberta held that the University of Alberta was not required to discipline counter-demonstrators who held signs and banners that blocked the pro-life displays of an anti-abortion student group. Justice Watson, writing the primary opinion, said in part:
The case at bar does not provide an appropriate opportunity to reach any final conclusion about what a ‘positive’ aspect of freedom of expression might mean. It is one thing to provide equal access to opportunities to express. It is quite another to take steps to ensure that the party exercising the freedom has an optimal chance to persuade other people. The University cannot be expected to guarantee that Pro-Life’s message will persuade anybody. More particularly, one thing it does not mean, in my view, is that the University was required to set its face so much against counter protests that it must prosecute without exception any overshoot potentially governed by the Rules of Student Behaviour.
The court however held that the University was not justified in imposing a $17,500 security deposit for the organization to hold a subsequent event.  It held that the University is subject to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms in regulating freedom of expression by students on campus grounds.

Justice Watson then wrote in part:
While I do not agree that victim blaming is what is involved, there appears to be error here by the University in imposing on Pro-Life the exclusive burden of overcoming problems arising from the fact that their expression might attract an adverse response.
... [I]t cannot be said that Pro-Life should be held 100% responsible for costs that future events might generate. Although the University says the concept of the heckler’s veto is misplaced here, the position for the University escalated the status of potential objectors to not merely being on par with the expresser, but above the expresser’s position.
[Thanks to James Phillips for the lead.]