By Kiva Ferraro
This is not an article about abortion, so check your opinion on that issue at the door. I do not care whether you are an ardent supporter, a till-I-die opponent or are apathetic towards the whole matter. At issue here is the presentation of graphic and disturbing materials by a student group in a manner that limited people’s choice to participate. I fully support free speech and freedom of expression, but does free speech and expression endow the right to exhibit disturbingly graphic displays in a manner that circumvents the public’s option to be involved or to opt out? The subject of abortion and individual feelings on the issue can quickly mar a discussion, so let us step away from Campus Pro-Life’s arguments on a complex social issue and instead look at the decisions by CPL, the University of Calgary and the Students’ Union in a different light.
I fictitiously and wholeheartedly disagree with everything Barney (the purple dinosaur) represents. In my opinion the TV show is damaging to children. I started a campus group dedicated to boycotting Barney. No one is willing to stand up to fight this purple monstrosity so I must. I will burn Barney in effigy. I have hired a contingent of firefighters, a fire truck and have even roped off what I believe to be a suitable area, so the demonstration will be as safe as possible. It is my right to express myself, therefore any objections the university might have are infringements upon my freedom of speech. And to maximize the impact of my message, I will burn the effigy of Barney within sight of the university’s daycare centre, so that children and parents alike will witness my objection to this most perverse purple dinosaur. Would anyone be surprised if the university tried to prevent me from proceeding with my demonstration as planned or if I were to face consequences afterwards?
Now, one could argue that burning effigies presents a greater public danger than photos, however grotesque they may be. I will grant you that the physical risks from pictures are likely limited to a paper cut, but what about the emotional and psychological damage they may incur? This is a very real concern and has been expressed by Stephanie Garrett, the executive director of the campus’ Women’s Resource Centre, which sees a “definite spike of people needing peer support coming into our centre . . . about that time of year when the pro-life rallies occur.” Nor is this necessarily limited to abortion, as CPL makes liberal use of parallels to the Rwandan genocide and racial killings. Expecting people to avoid the CPL’s demonstration is as unrealistic as thinking children in the daycare centre would not see Barney burn. The location CPL chose is one of the highest foot traffic areas on campus. Ask the Rock– our very own Stone Age billboard occupies the same spot for this very effective reason.
But perhaps you do not find the idea of burning Barney objectionable. Instead, our fictional demonstration may very well be in support of greater workplace health and safety standards for individuals involved in the pornography industry, complete with four-feet-by-six-feet colour photographs of the conditions under which these people toil. Or an animal rights display showing the skinning of animals to make coats and handbags.
The point is different subjects are objectionable or disturbing to different people. People must be given the choice of whether they wish to view such exhibitions and participate in the discussions. Requiring such does not constitute censorship, but rather civility towards differing opinions. When CPL set up their display, the group was well informed of the U of C’s and SU’s positions, as well as the range of potential consequences for their actions. So cast not long faces CPL, instead of working towards a compromise you bulled ahead with the demonstration as your group saw fit, irrespective of the opinions and wishes of others to participate or abstain. Perhaps it was done out of conviction or to gain recognition through controversy. The university, for its part, did try to find a middle ground, suggesting that the displays be turned inward; something that could have conceivably encouraged greater participation, as passersby would have had to engage more with CPL to see the displays instead of just glancing and walking past. The U of C is not the dictatorial institution that CPL makes it out to be, but rather an organization attempting to accommodate diverse views while also making its campus a comfortable environment for all.
Has CPL been judged too harsh? That is for you to decide. But should CPL be surprised that they now face consequences for their choices? Absolutely not, but maybe that was the intention from the start. After all, nothing garners media attention like shock tactics and a David versus Goliath spin.