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Anti-abortion group hails appeal ruling against University of Alberta as victory for free speech

A student anti-abortion group has won one of its appeals against the University of Alberta, in a ruling being hailed as a victory for free speech.

UAlberta Pro-Life argued $17,500 security fee infringed on freedom of expression

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 $17,000 security fee. (CBC)

A student anti-abortion group has won one of its appeals against the University of Alberta, in a ruling being hailed by some as a victory for free speech.

The case dates back to 2016 when UAlberta Pro-Life tried to host a protest on campus.

The university approved the event but only if the group paid a $17,500 security fee. The group claimed that cost was prohibitive and violated its freedom of expression.

In a unanimous decision handed down Monday, Alberta's Court of Appeal agreed. The ruling is the first of its kind in the province. 

"The education of students largely by means of free expression is the core purpose of the University dating from its beginnings and into the future," wrote Justice Jack Watson. "The ability of students to learn and to debate and to share ideas is not only a central feature of the core purpose of the university, but also the grounds of the university are physically designed to ensure that the capacity of each student to learn, debate and share ideas is in a community space."

Jay Cameron, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represented the group, lauded Monday's decision.

"That's a three judge decision now from the Alberta Court of Appeal saying that the Charter applies to protect student expression on university grounds," Cameron said. "And so that's major. That's a very significant finding.

"Increasingly universities have become echo chambers, where if you are touting majoritarian dogma you can say whatever you want. But if you're going to say something that's unpopular to the majority you're de-platformed or your events are cancelled, because students at universities are being inculcated with the idea that they should be sheltered from hearing things that they disagree with.

"And one of the purposes of university is to prepare students to go out into the real world, where guess what? They will encounter ideas that they disagree with and they can't have an emotional fit and blockade it and obstruct it and tear down signs and prevent people from seeing things, just because they personally disagree with it."

The anti-abortion group lost a second appeal about how the university handled the group's protest in 2015. That event sparked a pro-choice counter demonstration, where protesters tried to forcibly cover the display, which included graphic images of aborted fetuses.

UAlberta Pro-Life's judicial review opposed the university's decision not to investigate and discipline counter-demonstrators.

Both applications had been previously dismissed by the Court of Queen's Bench.

A spokesperson for the university declined comment while it reviews the decision.

Dwight Newman, a law professor who specializes in constitutional law at the University of Saskatchewan, said a crucial argument successfully raised by the student group was that the Charter of Rights provisions to protect free speech applied to the university's decisions about the protest.

"That was a controversial position in Canadian law as to whether the charter applied, and there have been some cases that have gone the other way on that," Newman said.

"The court takes an approach that's sort of deferential to the university on how they go about analyzing that. But they do end up finding an infringement on freedom of expression by the university imposing a security fee that was onerous for a student group to pay.

He added: "They're pretty strong in saying that free speech is at the very core of universities." 

Cameron said the decision should guide the university in future circumstances. 

"The court of appeal has communicated to the university that the way that it handled things was improper, and that in the future it has to have a mind to the fact that it is bound by the charter to recognize the constitutional right of freedom of expression on university grounds when that expression is from students," Cameron said.

with files from Madeleine Cummings, the Canadian Press