Group challenging University of Alberta's handling of anti-abortion protest

A group that advocates for freedom of speech is in court to challenge how the University of Alberta dealt with a student club that staged an anti-abortion display on campus.

University denies any wrongdoing in protest response

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 group that advocates for freedom of speech is in court to challenge how the University of Alberta dealt with a student club that staged an anti-abortion display on campus.

The event in March 2015 held by the UAlberta Pro-Life club included graphic pictures of aborted fetuses.

The display sparked a much larger counter-demonstration by pro-choice students and others who tried to prevent people from seeing the disturbing images.

'If the university wins, the mob wins'

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms says campus security did nothing to prevent this "mob" of students from disrupting the display and failed to adequately investigate a complaint filed by members of the Pro-Life club.

"There is no doubt that they were harassed, they were surrounded and harassed mercilessly," lawyer Jay Cameron said Thursday in Court of Queen's Bench on behalf of members of the club. 

"If the university wins, the mob wins."

Last year, the university told the anti-abortion club it must pay a $17,500 security fee if it wanted to set up a similar display.

The centre wants the court to rule that charging such a fee infringes on freedom of expression under the charter.

It also contends that the university illegally condoned the disruption of the 2015 display even though the club had a permit.

The university maintains that its discipline officer handled the case properly when he found that rules spelled out in the school's Code of Student Behaviour were not broken by the pro-choice protesters.

The officer determined that the counter-demonstration, which included students carrying signs saying "Don't Like Abortion? Don't Have One" and "I Am A Woman, Not A Womb", was itself a form of free speech.

"Free speech is not a clean process where people will always take turns and treat each other with deference," reads the officer's conclusion that was included in the university's brief submitted to the court.

"We have to expect that profound disagreements over controversial topics may be loud and vigorous. It follows that the university should tread lightly in applying disciplinary processes when people are engaging in a conflict of ideas."

'No university rules was broken'

Cameron said the university came to this conclusion even though campus security had initially told the pro-choice protesters that they were breaking the rules.

Matthew Woodley, a lawyer representing the university, said the complaints filed by the Pro-Life club students were investigated fairly and in a reasonable amount of time.

"No university rules was broken," he said in court. 

In 2010, the University of Calgary found a group of students guilty of misconduct for displaying signs with graphic abortion images.

The students, with the help of lawyers from Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, successfully challenged the decision in 2014.

The University of Alberta case was to continue Friday with submissions expected on the school's requirement for the Pro-Life club to pay a security fee before setting up another display.