On November 28, 2018, the Court of Appeal of Alberta will hear an appeal in UAlberta Pro-Life v. Governors of the University of Alberta, a case concerning the University of Alberta’s decision to impose an estimated $17,500 security costs fee on UAlberta Pro-Life, a pro-life student group, as a condition on the use of public space for a pro-life event on campus. The University imposed the security costs condition since, on a prior occasion, a crowd of counter-demonstrators had protested a similar event and made efforts to obstruct the event. This case raises important issues regarding the application of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to universities and, in particular, whether decisions about the use of public space on campus engage the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of expression.
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is intervening in this case in support of its longstanding commitment to freedom of expression on university campuses. The BCCLA will argue that universities are not Charter-free zones. Rather, since provincial governments entrust universities with responsibility for carrying out a government program – the delivery of education – the Charter must be found to apply. Where a university curtails free expression by effectively closing an otherwise open forum, it is not merely allocating physical space; it is regulating the “marketplace of ideas” that lies at the heart of the pursuit of higher education. Such decisions are properly subject to Charter scrutiny.
The BCCLA will also make submissions that the appropriate framework for the Alberta Court of Appeal’s analysis requires the court to consider the importance of the expression and the severity of the Charter infringement at issue. The Charter infringement in this case is severe; governmental decision-makers may not impose burdens and obstacles on free speech based upon the anticipated hostile reactions of observers. The BCCLA is concerned that such decisions would only serve to empower the suppression of controversial free speech by counter-demonstrators and would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Canada.
The BCCLA has a long history of pro-choice advocacy and action. We regard safe, effective access to abortion as a civil right – both as a matter of democratic principle, and as a fixture of Canadian law. However, the BCCLA also stands strongly for the right of students to express themselves in the university environment, whatever their opinions.
The BCCLA is represented in this case by Nathan J. Whitling of Aloneissi O’Neill Hurley O’Keeffe Millsap.