UVSS must respect the right to free speech

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In his essay “A Plea for Free Speech,” abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued that, “[. . .] to suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” One-hundred-fifty-four years after this speech was delivered in Boston, Douglass’s words still ring true. Despite having a mandate to represent all UVic students, the UVic Students’ Society (UVSS) endorses policies that impede freedom of expression on campus. They have repeatedly denied pro-life students the right to express their beliefs on campus. In denying the club Youth Protecting Youth (YPY) of their rights, which are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the UVSS is guilty of creating a hostile environment that is unreceptive to student advocacy.

Youth Protecting Youth exists to share the pro-life message on campus and to help connect women and men facing crisis pregnancies with appropriate support and resources. The club has a diverse membership and has had a presence at UVic since the late 1980s. In addition to educating students about the pro-life position, the club sponsors a $1000 bursary for single student mothers. Since induced abortions in Canada are performed most frequently on university-aged women, the pro-life message is of critical importance on campus.

A large part of the club’s involvement at UVic revolves around public engagement, which the UVSS has made more challenging. By taking away club funding, revoking the booking of public space and poster privileges, and even banning the club from campus in years past, the UVSS has made it clear that it is not interested in engaging with a minority group that does not conform to a pro-choice policy. They have used a vague and overly broad harassment policy to deprive students and faculty of their right to free speech, and deny women in crisis the resources YPY has to offer them.

Groups outside the university have also taken note of the UVSS’s abuse of free speech rights. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has classified the UVSS’s “[. . .] attempts to silence dissent through programs of systematic harassment as obnoxious to democracy.” In 2013 the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms gave the UVSS failing grades in both its policies and practices; in its report, the justice centre recognized that the UVSS’s treatment of YPY was at odds with the UVSS’s Clubs Policy of promoting “[. . .] an environment within which all members of the University Community can fully participate in respectful debate and the sharing of ideas.” It is no wonder the UVSS has earned a reputation among UVic students as intolerant of views that oppose their own.

The UVSS’s pro-choice policy should not be used to suppress pro-life students’ right to free speech on campus. Expressing a difference of opinion does not constitute harassment. Simply put, feeling offended and emotionally upset because one disagrees with a view does not mean one is being harassed. No one has a legal right to be free from offense. Students who see and dislike YPY posters are not being subjected to a “hostile, intimidating, threatening or humiliating environment,” as claimed by the UVSS. The Clubs Harassment Policy states that harassment is defined as “treatment” of a person. If merely expressing beliefs in advertising constituted “treating” people in a harassing manner, then no one would be able to express his or her views without fear of censure.

The 2014 Provost’s Research Diversity Forum slogan was “together in diversity.” If we at UVic are truly committed to diversity, we must express clearly to the UVSS that prohibiting harassment does not mean restricting protected speech. Inevitably, students on campus will be exposed to beliefs and values that challenge or conflict with their own; however, university students are encouraged to engage in critical thinking. UVic’s fundamental values include freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, and the equal rights and dignity of all persons. We challenge the UVSS to ensure their policies and actions do not suppress freedom of speech, but rather are congruent with these fundamental values.

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