VANCOUVER — A free-speech battle by opponents of abortion at the University of Victoria has been shut down by B.C.’s highest court, a decision that civil liberties advocates say is troubling.
In a unanimous ruling, the B.C. Court of Appeal rejected arguments by a pro-life student club claiming the university must consider freedom of expression when restricting use of common space on campus.
The court found the charter did not apply, but the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said the judgment did not consider broader implications.
“It so happens the group that was told it wasn’t allowed to speak and to express political opinions on campus was a pro-life group, but it could have been anyone,” said the association’s executive director Josh Paterson.
“We don’t think it’s right that universities should not have to consider students’ free expression and freedom of assembly in making those kinds of decisions.”
The group, called Youth Protecting Youth, was approved for a demonstration by the university in January 2013. But an official revoked the permit after learning the student society had sanctioned the group for allegedly harassing students.
The group held the demonstration anyway, in a protest they called a “choice chain.”
The university responded by suspending the club’s outdoor space booking privileges for one year and warned members that any future disregard of its directions could result in discipline.
Youth Protecting Youth responded by launching a legal challenge, with its president and the civil liberties association arguing the university’s response infringed on the group’s charter rights.
A panel of three B.C. Appeal Court judges disagreed.
They sided with a lower-court ruling that examined the university’s scope as a private organization, saying that “when the university books space for non-academic extra-curricular use, it is not implementing a specific government policy or program.”
However, Paterson said the civil liberties association believes universities making such decisions must take people’s charter rights into consideration.
“These types of decisions, we say, should not be charter-free zones,” Paterson said.
“We are … troubled by it and we’re going to be looking at it to see what should happen,” he said of the decision.
Representatives for Youth Protecting Youth did not respond to request for comment.
A university spokesman declined comment, saying the decision is being reviewed.
The case remains open for appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press