Discussing freedom of speech on campus
Editor’s Note: Paul Tuns, editor of The Interim, interviewed John Carpay, former executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation and who continues to the students involved with Campus Pro-life at the University of Calgary, about the case and freedom of speech on campus for pro-life groups in general.
The Interim: How did you get involved with the Campus Pro-life students at the University of Calgary? Why is it important for them to have legal representation and what role did you play?
John Carpay: The students approached me and asked for help in dealing with the university administration. I never promised the students that they would escape suffering and negative consequences for resisting censorship, and in fact the students were charged with trespassing on their own campus in 2009, and charged with non-academic misconduct in 2010. I did promise the students to represent them and fight for the best possible outcome, whatever that might be, and stand up to the university’s efforts to bully and intimidate. The students are principled and courageous, and I’m honoured to have them as clients. The students have told me many times that having legal representation has made a huge difference to them, and that they would not have stood up to censorship without it.
TI: Why do you think pro-life groups face such institutional harassment on campus? Is it a sign of strength or weakness for the pro-life movement that they are a target of pro-abortion student activism? Do you think that the pro-life students who are coming out of these experiences will be more committed to the cause in the long-term?
JC: Many Canadians have lost their understanding of how a free society works, and that a free society – and democracy itself – depend on free speech for all views, including views which the majority of people find abhorrent and offensive. If pro-life speech is silenced, there will be another opinion or form of speech that becomes the next target for censorship. I do think that censorship efforts directed at pro-lifers are a sign that pro-lifers are having some effect. If they had no impact, nobody would try to silence them. As for persecution, it has the effect of strengthening the resolve of some people, while also discouraging others.
TI: Is the harassment of Campus Pro-Life at UC a pro-life issue or a free speech issue? Why should people who don’t think of themselves as pro-life care about the rights of a pro-life club on campus?
JC: I’ve received donations in support of legal representation for the U of C students with notes attached to the cheques saying “I’m pro-choice but I support the free speech rights of these students. What the university is doing is totally wrong.” It’s been said that society does not become more tolerant with time, but merely changes the objects of its intolerance from time to time. The current object of intolerance – or one of them – is the pro-life view. I think the U of C situation is first and foremost a battle for free speech. But it’s also a pro-life issue. People who are not pro-life should – and in some cases do – support free speech for pro-lifers, because in doing so, they support the free speech rights of every Canadian.
TI: How do you respond to the argument that the university should be allowed to make and enforce its own rules?
JC: In my view, a private university which is not supported by taxpayers should have complete freedom to censor whichever views it wants, as long as the university is up-front in its advertising and promotion efforts and indicates that it adopts a certain perspective or philosophy. Students attending that university will know ahead of time that certain opinions and behaviours are not permitted on campus, and if they choose to pay tuition and attend, they should abide by the rules. But the University of Calgary – and all public universities in Canada – receive the majority of their funding from taxpayers. Each year, they get billions of tax dollars by promising to be an unbiased forum for frank debate, and a market-place for the fearless pursuit of truth. Having obtained billions of tax dollars by making that promise to respect the free expression of all opinions, these universities then do not have the right to discriminate against pro-life speech (or any other opinion, for that matter). If a university wants to describe itself as officially pro-choice, and ban the expression of pro-life speech on campus, it should make that known to prospective students and to donors, and decline government funding.
TI: From a legal perspective, does it make a difference whether it is a student union or school administration that is acting against/discriminating against pro-life groups?
JC: For the pro-life students facing censorship and discrimination, on a practical level it doesn’t make a huge difference whether this is coming from the students’ union or the university administration. Legally, both the students’ union and the university administration must respect the free speech rights in which they supposedly believe, and refrain from discrimination based on viewpoint.
TI: You are no longer with the Canadian Constitution Foundation. Are they continuing to work on this case, or is it something that you will continue working on?
JC: The Canadian Constitution Foundation is no longer representing or helping the University of Calgary pro-life students, and the Canadian Constitution Foundation is not doing any campus free speech cases at this time. The U of C students have therefore asked me to continue representing them, and I am honoured to do so. Another registered charity, the Faith and Freedom Alliance, is taking on campus free speech as one of its projects. The Faith and Freedom Alliance is receiving donations for campus free speech, and issuing tax receipts for donations received.
TI: What are you up to now, having left the Canadian Constitution Foundation?
JC: I’m in the private practice of law in Calgary, with a focus on civil and constitutional litigation. I am in a position to represent campus pro-life groups outside of Alberta as well, plus provide help, research and advice to lawyers in other provinces who take on these important cases. I will be doing this campus free speech work as counsel to the Faith and Freedom Alliance.
TI: You mentioned at the Faith and Freedom Alliance conference in June that you yearn for “the day when every pro-life campus group has legal representation that is pro bono, effective, comprehensive, and on-going.” Is that a realistic goal, what will it take to achieve it, and what role does FFA play in reaching it?
JC: I believe there are enough Canadians who care about campus free speech that it is possible to provide every campus pro-life group with effective, on-going, pro bono legal representation to deal with students unions and university administrations. I’m thankful that the Faith and Freedom Alliance has chosen to take this on as one of its projects, as the involvement of a registered charity will help a lot with raising the necessary funds to make this happen.