The University of Calgary faced criticism from students and media the last few days after initially threatening the Campus Pro-Life group with arrest, fines and/or non-academic misconduct for their controversial Genocide Awareness Project display.
The university called for the group to face its images inwards, allowing passersby the option of not seeing the display. CPL refused, setting up the display which contains graphic images of abortions alongside genocide and Holocaust victims Wednesday morning. Campus security was present and barriers were put up.
University administration has received complaints from students and staff the last five times the display was on campus. The university released a statement Tuesday and declined to comment further.
“The paramount issues for the university are the need to uphold its legal right to manage activities on its campus, and ensure the safety and security of its faculty, staff and students,” the statement read.
It also stated that last spring, CPL requested that the university provide assistance to prevent an escalation to physical conflict and in doing so, “acknowledged the risks to members of the campus community.”
Campus security declined to comment on violence surrounding displays from previous years.
Women’s Resource Centre executive director Stephanie Garrett said that there hasn’t been any violent interactions between CPL and their opposition.
“This issue has evolved into one that is more about freedom of expression and what is permitted on a university campus than the issue of abortion,” she said. “If the issue was about pro-choice versus pro-life then the content of the display would be in question, but at this point it’s not about that.”
U of C Freethought Association president and third-year physics student Ben Keller thought the fear of violence was not a valid excuse.
“I think most people are resourceful enough to see something that they disagree with without resorting to violence,” he said.
While he disagreed with CPL’s display, saying the posters trivialize both genocide and the Holocaust, he agreed they should be allowed to rally on campus.
Early Wednesday morning, Pro-Choice supporters dressed as clowns, set up signs for the WRC and warned students of the upcoming display. They passed out comment cards for students to share how the display affected them. The university also displayed signs warning of the graphic nature of the GAP display.
CPL treasurer and biology student Alanna Campbell said the university approached the group with Alberta’s Petty Trespass Act, which prohibits trespassing on privately owned land. CPL received legal counsel, which advised them the law doesn’t apply to students on their own campus.
“It would be censorship of them to make us hide our message,” she said. “We have a right to peacefully express our view on campus.”
CPL buys the GAP signs from the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which was created by an American affiliate. CPL is funded by private donations.
Only a few hours after they began, CPL received another notice from the university titled “Follow Instructions or Leave University Property.” The statement called for the group to turn signs which contained images of genocide and Holocaust inwards, while those with only images of abortion could remain facing the public. It listed repercussions such as a fine of $2,000, arrest and/or non-academic misconduct. One non-student member of CPL left campus.
“The university, far from supporting its own students who pursue the truth, has suppressed and attempted to intimidate us,” said CPL president Leah Hallman. “The value of a life saved is far beyond the value of anything we could lose by our stand.”
Garrett said the WRC supports women having the ability to make informed choices regarding abortion and that the violent images limited freedom of speech on both sides of the issue.
“Harmful displays such as the GAP display only serve to silence people, to reduce the opportunity for discussion and to retraumatize people who have been victimized by very influential events in their lives that are personal as well,” she said.
The WRC’s visitors to the peer support program more than double each time the display is on campus.
Feminist Initiative Recognizing Equality president Kat Lord said that while the group understands that the university has its “hands tied,” they would have liked to see more done. FIRE avoided the display today because they have been accused of being violent and did not want to face legal actions from CPL.
“You can’t speak rationally to irrational people,” she said. “We’ll have a petition signing happening throughout the entire semester which will be given to the university at the end of the semester in hopes that next year GAP won’t be allowed on campus.”
FIRE is planning to have a pro-choice awareness day next semester where they will hand out information on sexual health issues.
Correction: In the original version of this story FIRE was incorrectly reported to be planning a pro-life awareness day next semester, when, in fact, they are planning a pro-choice event. The Gauntlet apologizes for any confusion.