From battling pro-life club bans on campus to provincial bubble zones, pro-lifers fight for free speech rights

It should not be a surprise to anyone that pro-lifers have been experiencing censorship for decades, but it certainly seems like now, more than ever before, school administrations, city and provincial governments, pro-abortion groups, and even the general public, have ramped up their efforts to render the pro-life movement invisible. There is currently a war being waged over pro-life speech. This could be a turning point, though in which direction is still uncertain. It might seem to some that the only way to go is up.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) publishes an annual Campus Freedom Index, which, in 2015, looked at the policies and practices regarding free speech at 55 Canadian public universities and their corresponding student unions and assigns them a grade according to their treatment of free speech in both policy and practice; ‘F’s greatly outnumber the ‘A’s.

The University of Alberta, for instance, got a ‘B’ for its policies but an ‘F’ in its practices. Not only have they refused to discipline the many students who violated the university’s own Code of Student Behaviour by tearing down posters and obstructing the graphic educational display of UAlberta Pro-Life in the 2014-2015 school year, but because of the antics of these rule-breakers this past year school administration charged the club $17,500 in security fees to stage the same event, prompting the club to cancel it.

This problem of demonstrators managing to censor the other side is commonly referred to as “heckler’s veto.” It seems to be growing, but as JCCF president John Carpay told The Interim, “a kindergarten student understands the difference between drawing her own picture and placing a sheet of paper over top of the picture drawn by the boy next to her. But university presidents (at the University of Alberta and elsewhere) can’t grasp this simple concept, or they don’t want to.”

JCCF has aided student groups who have to resort to legal action in order to protect their rights. Lawsuits have been launched by UAlberta Pro-Life, Speak for the Weak (Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology), Students for Life (University of Toronto Mississauga), and Students for Life at Ryerson. Even the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which spearheaded the challenge to the country’s euthanasia laws, advocated on behalf of University of Victoria’s pro-life club Youth Protecting Youth when they were discriminated against by their university. In their case, the Supreme Court of British Columbia, in a decision upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal on April 18, 2016, ruled that universities need not protect their students’ rights to free speech because the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the judges claimed, does not apply to public universities.

In the Campus Freedom Index, JCCF documents how much of this censorship by universities and student unions is not anything as forthright as “speech codes,” but rather subtler commitments to “safe spaces” and an opposition to “offensive” expression. Safe spaces are places on campus where an individual can be free of feeling uncomfortable; many schools and student unions have broad rules against speech that are deemed offensive to identifiable groups. Some schools and student unions have ruled that expressions of the pro-life position is inherently anti-woman and thus run afoul of their codes of conduct.

Protecting free speech and protecting the feelings of certain people are often at odds. Carpay argues that “freedom of expression is, in fact, a right to offend others,” explaining, “not that offending others should be a goal or purpose, but one must recognize that offending people is a necessary side-effect or by-product of free speech.”

Timothy Brahm of the Equal Rights Institute explains in his article “Six Ways I’ve Seen Pro-Choice People Try to Censor Pro-Lifers,” that sometimes the truth hurts precisely because it discomfits individuals. Brahm says, “honest truth-seeking is necessarily painful because it means challenging even the beliefs that you love the most. Honest truth-seeking means intentionally avoiding confirmation bias by seeking to understand the strongest arguments of people that disagree with you. Believing in a moral right to a safe space from anything offensive means believing confirmation bias is a virtue.”

Some pro-abortion supporters, however, see any debate on the issue as a threat to their own rights, so they attempt to shut it down. In 2014, a debate at the University of Victoria between co-founder of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) Stephanie Gray and bioethics professor Eike-Henner Kluge was interrupted numerous times. One of the protestors complained that Gray was there “with the intent of recruiting people to restrict safe and legal access to abortion” and avowed “we are absolutely not willing to allow any farce like that to go down on campus.” The hecklers, however, were met with an unexpected opponent. A visibly upset woman came up to the front and announced that she was an immigrant who has encountered much violence. She said to one of the hecklers, “You don’t understand what I’ve gone through to be in this room… but you’re taking my right away.” She asked for respect for all the audience members “who just want to learn.” That didn’t stop a chant of “No debate” shortly afterward. Carpay attributes this approach to emotions having “more influence than in previous decades, when more people understood that facts and reason together lead to truth, in contrast to emotion.”

Although much censorship and the counter-campaign for free speech are taking place on campus, there are plenty of assaults on free speech taking place off it.

David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress became a public figure last summer for investigating and exposing the selling of body parts by Planned Parenthood after releasing videos detailing the grisly trade. A Houston grand jury did not charge Planned Parenthood though; instead they indicted Daleiden for “tampering with a government record” and, of all things, for trying to purchase human organs (by posing as agents trying to get PP workers to admit what they do). The message was heard loud and clear: shut up or else.

Canada is not faring any better. On June 29, 2016, Newfoundland pro-lifers Colette Fleming and Patrick Hanlon agreed to a 40 metre buffer zone (also known as a bubble zone) in which they cannot protest around a St. John’s abortion facility. Those who are pro-abortion contend such buffer zones are needed to prevent harassment, but for over 25 years pro-lifers have been witnessing peacefully outside abortion facilities in the province.

Come fall, Newfoundland’s Liberal government plans to cement buffer zones into law. Similar legislation, the Access to Abortion Services Act, is already in place in British Columbia. It was challenged by pro-life protestors Gordon Watson and Donald Spratt, but in 2008 the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the act, deeming “safe, unimpeded access” to abortion facilities more important than the right to free speech. Quebec and Ontario also have buffer zones around some of their abortion facilities, the result of “temporary” court injunctions, some of which have spanned decades; Ontario’s temporary injunction was sought by the provincial NDP government in 1994.

CCBR has much experience championing free speech and free expression. They have sued the city of Grande Prairie and town of Hinton – both in Alberta — for refusing their bus ads depicting a seven week and 16 week old fetus and a blood smear with the caption: “Growing…Growing…Gone. Abortion kills children.” After initially rejecting the ad and having a lawsuit filed against them, the city of Peterborough in Ontario has backed down and agreed to run the ads on their buses.

CCBR’s graphic postcards, which they usually hand-deliver, have also gotten a lot of flak, with the city of Hamilton requesting in 2014 that the Ontario and federal government outlaw “the use of graphic, gruesome and disturbing images of aborted fetuses” in advertising. Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which has long been in the business of demanding censorship of pro-lifers, recently claimed, “no city council in Canada has had the courage to pass a bylaw against such tactics, even though one could be written to pass constitutional scrutiny.” One woman opposed to the postcards in Toronto took matters into her own hands and removed them from her neighbours’ mailboxes; Liz Phillips has gone unpunished and City News reports that many neighbours appreciated her actions.

Because the controversy surrounding CCBR’s methods regularly generates increased media attention, the effects of censorship might not immediately seem so bad. However, the mainstream media is often biased in its coverage and will almost always censor the offending images. According to Carpay, “long-term the censorship is harmful for getting a message out to the public,” because resources – time and money – are being used “fighting free speech battles” and “there is less time and energy left over for communicating the core message they want to promote on campus.” The same goes for any censored pro-life group.

Many pro-abortion supporters want to suppress even non-graphic pro-life messages. A flag reading “Celebrate Life Week” and “Please let me live” and featuring cartoon character Umbert the Unborn attracted opposition when it was announced it was to be flown on the guest flagpole of Prince Albert, Sask. Arthur wrote to Mayor Greg Dionne and the city council, claiming that in addition to being discriminatory against women, the proclamation of “Celebrate Life Week” was “inflammatory,” thereby contravening one of the city’s own bylaws, and that the approval of the flag violates their policy to not fly flags of organizations the community views as controversial. Yet, that begs the question of what constitutes inflammatory or controversial. Pride flags are flown across Canada, despite segments of the population opposed to the gay agenda. As Carpay says, “the bias is obvious: groups with unpopular messages face censorship; groups with popular messages don’t face censorship.”

Although Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) recently allowed a pro-life billboard contrasting the view that killing a puppy is cruelty to the view that killing a baby is a choice, on many other occasions they have been complicit in the censoring of pro-lifers. In the past, the ASC has claimed that pro-life advertisements mislead or omit relevant information, which, some may argue, is rather characteristic of most advertisements. An Edmonton Pro-life ad reading, “9 months. That is the amount of time the government says it is legal to have an abortion. Abortion. Have we gone too far?” was decided to be misleading because, in the words of the ASC, “the Canadian Government has not, through legislation or otherwise, declared that abortions were either legal or illegal … It concerned Council that readers of the advertisement could mistakenly be led to believe that medical practitioners were not professionally constrained as to when, or if, they may agree to perform abortions in Canadian hospitals.” A Guelph & Area Right to Life ad reading, “This is a Child. Not a Choice. Why abortion when there are alternatives?” also got nixed, in part because “Under the Criminal Code of Canada a foetus is not a child given that human life begins only at live birth.”

The National March for Life counter-protest this year was another very notable instance of an attempt to stifle any dialogue on abortion. The Proletariat Feminist Front of Ottawa, whose stated motive is to end the March, yelled slogans and meddled with equipment in an attempt to shut down the Wednesday night candlelight vigil and some members even got arrested. The following day, the Proletariat Feminist Front and La Riposte Féministe, many of them masked, organized their own counter-march, and tried to confront the marching pro-lifers. To prevent the two groups from meeting, the police diverted peaceful pro-lifers, shortening the route of the National March for Life – for which the March’s organizers had a permit — a result which the Proletariat Feminist Front celebrated.

As Brahm points out, “any open-minded person should be disgusted whenever people try to silence their political opposition.” Why? Because “censorship doesn’t want people to choose the more compelling view, it wants to force people into only having one view to choose from.” Brahm forebodingly warns, “if enough people are brainwashed to only listen to people that agree with them, we will not be able to stop abortion.” Carpay believes that things might get worse in the coming years “but with strong efforts to educate Canadians about free expression, these efforts might pay off and create a better medium-term and long-term future for free speech in Canada.”

In many cases, pro-life advocates have become free speech champions. For Carpay, they are “already ‘one and the same’ to some degree.”