EDMONTON – A campus group that staged an anti-abortion protest at the University of Alberta that sparked a noisy counter-demonstration by other students and faculty has lost a court challenge over how the school handled the event.
UAlberta Pro-Life was seeking a judicial review of the university’s decision not to investigate the group’s complaint that counter-demonstrators should have been disciplined for blocking its displays in 2015 that included pictures of dismembered fetuses.
The group also wanted a review of the university’s decision that the group would have to pay $17,500 to cover security costs for a similar anti-abortion protest it wanted to hold in 2016.
The centre wanted the court to rule that charging a security fee infringed on freedom of expression under the charter.
Justice Bonnie Bokenfohr of Court of Queen’s Bench dismissed both applications.
Bokenfohr ruled that UAlberta Pro-Life was treated fairly and the university was within its right to require the club to pay for security if it wanted to hold another protest.
“The university recognized that the event was a form of expression and expressly stated that it values the expression of diverse points of view,” she wrote.
“The decision balanced this against the university’s obligation to ensure safety and security and the financial impact on university operations.”
University of Alberta officials were studying the ruling.
“The University of Alberta is pleased with the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision to dismiss both judicial reviews related to the UAlberta Pro-Life student group events,” Bryan Alary, a university spokesman said in an email.
“We have not yet had a chance to review the decision in detail and therefore reserve further comment at this time.”
Jay Cameron, a lawyer for a group called the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, represented UAlberta Pro-Life in court last June.
Cameron argued that campus security did nothing to prevent a “mob” of counter-protesters from disrupting the display. He also argued the school failed to adequately investigate a complaint filed by members of Pro-Life.
There was no doubt that club members were harassed mercilessly, he said.
“If the university wins, the mob wins,” he said at the time.
Cameron said the group will appeal Bokenfohr’s decision.
“We are disappointed that a party who did nothing wrong and had permission to be there would be punished and censored for the misdeeds of others,” he said Thursday.
“The university code of student behaviour says it stands for free speech, but it takes courage to stand for something and not just pay lip service to it.”
The university argued that its discipline officer handled the case properly when he found that rules spelled out in the school’s code of student behaviour were not broken by the pro-choice protesters.
The officer had determined that the counter-demonstration was itself a form of free speech.
“Free speech is not a clean process where people will always take turns and treat each other with deference,” read the officer’s conclusion that was included in the university’s brief submitted to the court.
“We have to expect that profound disagreements over controversial topics may be loud and vigorous. It follows that the university should tread lightly in applying disciplinary processes when people are engaging in a conflict of ideas.”