Alberta Court of Appeal hears freedom of expression case from anti-abortion group

A University of Alberta anti-abortion group believes its right to freedom of expression has been violated by the imposition of a security fee to stage campus events. The case was heard Wednesday by the Alberta Court of Appeal.

U of A anti-abortion group argues right to free speech banned by price tag

Pro-choice protesters at the University of Alberta obscured an anti-abortion display by the group UAlberta Pro-Life in March 2015. The pro-life group planned a similar event for February 2016, but couldn't afford the university's $17,500 security fee. (CBC)

A University of Alberta anti-abortion group says its right to freedom of expression has been quashed by the university.

UAlberta Pro Life has taken its case to the Alberta Court of Appeal.

In 2015, the group staged an approved campus event to raise awareness for their beliefs. Their display provoked a pro-choice counter-protest, during which dissenting students tried to forcibly cover the images.

The anti-abortion group filed a complaint, but after an investigation, the university decided no breach of university rules occurred and did not proceed with the complaint.

In 2016, UAlberta Pro Life asked permission to stage another similar event. After conducting a security assessment, the university said the event could proceed, but attached a $17,500 price tag to cover security costs.

The event was not held in 2016.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms took up the legal battle on behalf of the anti-abortion group. In the Alberta Court of Appeal Wednesday, lawyer Jay Cameron said at its core, the case is about freedom of expression.

"My clients are in the minority," Cameron said. "I recognize my clients' position is uncomfortable, disagreeable, unpopular. You don't have to agree with them to find they have a justifiable place in the social fabric of the University of Alberta."

Cameron argued the university made a decision in bad faith when it opted not to pursue a complaint in 2015 against the counter-protesters. He said that was compounded the next year when the hefty price tag was attached to security costs.

He described it as, "excusing the people who did wrong and infringing on the civil rights of people who didn't do anything wrong."

Amberlee Nicol was president of UAlberta Pro Life in 2015 when a demonstration and counter-demonstration was held on the University of Alberta campus. (Simon-Pierre Poulin/CBC )

Amberlee Nicol was president of UAlberta Pro Life in 2015. Outside court, she told CBC News, "We're not very popular and we're okay with that. But if our ability to express ourselves becomes directly tied to how much money we have in our bank accounts, then it really does become a ban by price tag."

She referred to it as a "heckler's veto."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association was granted intervenor status in the case.

Acting on behalf of the association, Edmonton lawyer Nate Whitling told the court the heckler's veto allows "the unruly mob to dictate the message."

"The concern here is that security costs can be used...to trample out these controversial ideas," Whitling said. "The dominant group's ideas will be the ones that prevail."

'Their ability to express their point of view was approved'

Representing the University of Alberta, Edmonton lawyer Matt Woodley pointed out the university never denied permission to UAlberta Pro Life to stage events.

"What they're complaining about is that there's a cost attached," Woodley said. "This was not a shutting down of this group's expression."

Woodley insisted the university followed all of its guidelines. First, when it declined to proceed with a complaint against the counter protestors and secondly, when it imposed a security fee.

"This is manifestly not a case where the university has prevented difficult or unpopular issues to be debated on campus," Woodley said.

The three justices have reserved their decision.

"I just hope ultimately the judges recognize that the ruling of this case will really affect many people's ability to express themselves on campus," Amberlee Nicol said outside court.

"Because whether it was the intention of the people involved or not, the fact is that if people are allowed to price their ideological opposition off campus, that just absolutely chills the conversation."