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Eight anti-abortion activists at the University of Calgary have been found guilty of non-academic misconduct. ((CBC))

Eight University of Calgary students engaged in non-academic misconduct when they refused to turn their graphic anti-abortion signs away from passersby on campus, the school's vice-provost has ruled.

The students, who are members of the Campus Pro-Life Club, were accused of failing to comply with campus security procedures in connection with a display they put up in April depicting aborted fetuses.

The penalty is a formal, written warning.

The university said the students, who had been facing expulsion, failed to comply with requests from security staff to turn the signs around and could face harsher penalties in the future if they don't comply with campus regulations.

University of Calgary vice-provost Meghan Houghton said the students' conduct was a "major violation" of campus rules.

The group's case was argued by the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a non-profit group that helps individuals fight constitutional cases that concern such rights as freedom of association, religion, opinion and expression.

"The Canadian Constitution Foundation takes no position on abortion, but we defend free speech for all Canadians, especially on the campus of a taxpayer-funded university," said the foundation's executive director, John Carpay, who represented the eight students before the university.

The U of C has said the issue is not the students' opinions but their failure to comply with requests to ensure the safety of students.

Alanna Campbell, president of the group, denies passersby were harassed and said members simply tried to engage people by asking what they think about abortion.

The students plan to appeal the finding. There are two internal levels of appeal at the University of Calgary: the appeal board and then the board of governors. After that, it can be appealed to the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench.

9th time displayed

The controversial poster campaign, which the group dubbed the Genocide Awareness Project, has been set up on campus at the University of Calgary nine times since 2006.  

The group made headlines in November 2008 for displaying posters of aborted fetuses. It had refused university administrators' requests to make the posters — which compared abortion to the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda — less visible and also ignored a letter threatening legal action.

Six students were charged with trespassing on campus, but those charges were later stayed.

The group put up the display again on April 8 of this year and was asked by campus security to turn the graphic images inward, away from passersby. The students snubbed that request and refused to leave campus, according to the university's letter.

With files from Canadian Press