University of Alberta anti-abortion group faces $17,500 security tab

A University of Alberta anti-abortion group says it's being asked to pay a high price for free speech.

Graphic images at similar protest last year provoked counter-protest

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 security fee. (CBC)

A University of Alberta anti-abortion group says it's being asked to pay a high price for free speech.

UAlberta Pro-Life, a registered student club, called off their on-campus demonstration after the university asked for a $17,500 security fee.

The group held a similar protest in March 2015, which included graphic images of aborted fetuses. Their display provoked a pro-choice counter-protest, during which dissenting students tried to forcibly cover the images.

Amberlee Nicol, president of UAlberta Pro-Life, said this year's demonstration was planned from Feb. 22 to 23  and would have been almost identical to the one in 2015. She said the security fee effectively killed the event.

"They might as well have just denied us approval, because they had to have known that we wouldn't be able to pay that much money," she said.

Nicol said the images are educational and an integral part of the demonstration.

"If abortion is disturbing to look at, it raises questions — maybe we should talk about the nature of abortion itself," she said. 

"The entire point of university is to engage with controversy in a respectful and thoughtful way, and so if we cannot confront the difficult things in society in our places of higher learning, where can we confront them?"

The University of Alberta can ask student groups to pay security fees, according to the office of the dean of students. Events that involve alcohol or potential conflict between groups, such as a sporting event, are often subject to such fees.

"It's their own budget that's reducing their ability to express their views, and not something that's being imposed by the university," said Wendy Rodgers, the deputy provost of the University of Alberta.

It's their own budget that's reducing their ability to express their views, and not something that's being imposed by the university.- Wendy Rodgers, University of Alberta deputy provost 

Every university event is analysed by a security team to decide what kind of safety measures are necessary. Rodgers said the public backlash at last year's UAlberta Pro-Life event likely factored into this year's high fee.

But Nicol said her group can't control other students' behaviour. She said her club followed procedure when registering the event, and the security fee surprised them just 11 days before they planned to protest.

"Because these people decided not to follow the rules, even though we did, we're the ones being punished for it," she said.

According to Rodgers, the university tried to work with UAlberta Pro-Life to reduce the fee by finding a less public venue for the demonstration. She said the same fee would have been applied to a pro-choice group that planned a similar event in the same location. 

"One of the purposes of the university is to promote free expression of ideas, but we do have to ensure that all of those expressions are done in safety as respectfully as possible," Rodgers said.

Group challenging security fee

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in Calgary is now challenging the hefty security fee. John Carpay, the centre's president, said the university has trampled on the group's freedom of expression.

"If we have freedom of expression, but only as long as nobody feels hurt or offended, then we don't have freedom of expression," he said.

Carpay said pro-choice students need to acknowledge that anti-abortion students have an equal right to freedom of expression, as long as they express their views peacefully.

"If you don't stand up for somebody else's free expression rights, you're undermining your own free-expression rights."

UAlberta Pro-Life sued the university for failing to uphold freedom of speech during the 2015 demonstration. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Carpay said the security fee will be added to the same lawsuit.