CALGARY — A group of students that oppose abortion is facing possible expulsion from the University of Calgary as part of a long-simmering dispute stemming from its refusal to move a proactive poster display from campus.
The university is refusing to comment, but free speech advocates are panning the treatment of the students.
The group, called Campus Pro-Life Club, points out how quick the school was to herald itself as a defender of free speech when it welcomed firebrand conservative pundit Anne Coulter for an address last month.
“To me it feels like viewpoint discrimination because really, no other group on campus has ever been asked to modify the way that they’re expressing their ideas,” said Alanna Campbell, incoming president of the group and one of eight students facing discipline.
“The only reason I can come up with is they don’t like our message.”
There’s little argument the group’s display is provocative.
Called the Genocide Awareness Project, it compares abortion to past historical atrocities, such as the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. It involves graphic photos of fetuses and victims of genocide. It has been posted on the University of Calgary grounds eight times since 2006.
The two sides have been fighting since 2008 when the university charged the students with trespassing after they refused a request to turn graphic abortion signs away from passersby during a protest. Those charges were later stayed by the Alberta Crown.
Earlier this month, the university warned students in writing that they violated the non-academic misconduct policy.
Hearings with the provost will be held Wednesday and Friday. There are 10 possible sanctions ranging from a written warning to suspension or expulsion.
Campbell admitted the display is “really graphic” but said the university’s reaction seems to be a bit on the extreme side.
“When Anne Coulter was here they came out and made a statement reaffirming the value of free speech and how she had the right to say anything she wanted and it’s just kind of strange how that doesn’t apply to students when they’re on campus,” Campbell said.
“I think one of the main goals of the university is to exchange ideas and talk about different opinions and try and seek out truths. And when you decide one group is not welcome to do that in a way you don’t like, to me it basically amounts to censorship and really stifles what a university is there to do.”
When Coulter, an American TV pundit, was on a Canadian speaking tour last month, the University of Calgary welcomed her, despite controversial comments she has made about Muslims, gays and women. A earlier speech at the University of Ottawa was cancelled because of protests.
“The purpose of a university is to encourage and promote the free exchange of ideas,” University of Calgary provost Alan Harrison told reporters at the time.
“To do anything other than that is to go against what the university stands for.”
John Carpay of the Canadian Justice Foundation, a group which defends freedom of speech, has been providing legal help to the students. He said the move by the university seems to be an attempt to intimidate and appears to be in retaliation to the trespassing charges being dropped.
“Bullying? Absolutely,” Carpay said. “These students are being singled out because of their viewpoint for setting up a peaceful, passive display on campus which has been set up there several times since 2006 and it’s always been without incident.
“The policy on non-academic misconduct has a list of things including assault, setting unauthorized fires, sexual assault, vandalism and this is a major violation in the university’s viewpoint.”
The president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, Janet Keeping, was taken aback when she learned that the university is looking at possible expulsion, calling it “odd.”
“If these students were associated with a different issue would they be treated in the same way? There has been a worry as to whether there has been a politicization of how these students are being treated,” Keeping said.
“Of course they’re dealing with a political issue. Whether you take a pro-choice position as I would personally or a pro-life one as these students have been — it’s a political position with political ramifications.”