Defending the free society is an uphill fight.
One of the reasons is that most people only start to care about rights and freedoms when their own ox gets gored, and not before then.
When the government curtails the other guy’s weird or unenlightened religion, and police crackdown on peaceful street preaching, it’s difficult to defend religious freedom.
When it comes to somebody else’s wrong opinions and bad ideas, it’s hard to be concerned about state censorship.
Defending those you disagree with
One needs very strong convictions about liberty in order to defend freedom of association for people whose beliefs are utterly opposed to your own opinions. It’s easier to support peaceful assembly when people are marching for a cause you agree with.
When you’ve never been accused of a crime yourself, it can be tough to fathom the need for placing limits on the powers of police and prosecutors.
In a world where people tend to defend fundamental freedoms only when their own ox is being gored, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see an organization that supports free speech for people whose ideas they disagree with. Exhibit “A” is the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and its intervention in the free speech case of UAlberta Pro-Life v. University of Alberta.
This court case arose in 2015, when a small group of students received approval from the University of Alberta to set up a stationary display on campus. The display juxtaposed photos of fetal development at various stages with photos of abortions performed at different stages of pregnancy.
The University of Alberta failed to defend free speech
An unruly mob of loud protesters disrupted and obstructed the display, using sheets and large banners to make it impossible for anyone to see the images. Campus security told the obstructionists that shutting down university-related events is contrary to the Code of Student Behaviour, but took no action to uphold free speech on campus.
Campus security then rubbed salt on the wound by refusing to discipline any of the students who broke the rules, not even those who bragged publicly on Facebook about their illegal conduct.
When the pro-life students asked to put up a display the following year, the U of A demanded $17,500 in “security fees,” which the students obviously could not afford.
The sad spectacle of cowardly campus security guards willfully condoning the violation of university rules is a growing problem at Canadian universities.
The University of Alberta is not unique in refusing to discipline students who knowingly trample on the free expression rights of other students. The rule of law also gets trampled in this process, to the detriment of all Canadians.
The BCCLA would describe its position on abortion as pro-choice. Yet the BCCLA has intervened in this case to argue against imposing a $17,500 security fee on pro-life students.
The BCCLA understands that free expression isn’t about allowing ideas we agree with. It’s tolerating the speech we detest. It’s about rejecting government censorship of opinions that we think are vile, destructive, wrong and false.
As an intervener before the Alberta Court of Appeal, the BCCLA asserts that the “University of Alberta has empowered an unruly mob.” The BCCLA argues that if the university’s behaviour is condoned by the Alberta Court of Appeal, this would “inevitably lead to … the stifling of minority views.” The BCCLA argues that the Charter protects the right of listeners as well as speakers.
Free speech should not have a price tag
The BCCLA recognizes that “expression respecting the debate about abortion lies at the very heart of freedom of expression.” Imposing $17,500 in security fees “empowers unruly mobs to suppress free speech.”
Free speech should not be financially burdened just because it might offend a hostile mob: “Free speech is supposed to be provocative and challenging. Just as the state cannot itself stifle free expression on the basis of its content, the state cannot empower private persons to do so by throwing a sufficient number of rocks and bottles.”
If more groups (and individuals) understood the importance of fighting for someone else’s rights and freedoms, as the BCCLA does, Canada’s society would be stronger and freer, for the benefit of all citizens.
Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents UAlberta Pro-Life in its court challenge against the University of Alberta. The Alberta Court of Appeal will hear oral argument in Edmonton on November 28, 2018.
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