Pending Lawsuit Against UTMSU: the debate behind the case
(Photo: National Campus Life Network)
On Friday, the Calgary-based "Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms" filed a lawsuit against the UTMSU (University of Toronto Mississauga Student Union) . The long distance, high-profile lawsuit comes in response to the UTMSU’s decision to not grant club status to "Students for Life", a pro-life advocacy group. The broad attention paid to this “campus issue” is thanks in part to it falling at the intersection of two sensitive debates: one on abortion, and one on the limits of free expression.
When "Students for Life" first objected to being denied club status, the UTMSU’s response guided the debate away from controversy. In an email to the club, VP Campus Life Russ Adade pointed to “discrepancies [the UTMSU] found within [Students for Life’s] constitution in relation to the clubs handbook.”
However, recently published minutes from an August meeting show Adade citing a different—less innocuous—reason. Speaking to the board, Adade said that the club “was not recognized for the upcoming school year due to … being pro-life and using their platform to tell women what they should do in those situations.”
It was this explanation that interested Calgary lawyer John Carpay, who interprets the decision as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the freedom of association and freedom of expression. His specific case for "Students for Life", is that the Charter guarantees both the freedom to associate as a club, and the freedom to express a pro-life opinion.
One defence of the UTMSU decision is in their mission statement, which makes it a mandate “[t]o safeguard the individual rights of the student, regardless of race, creed, [or] sex.” The argument goes that the individual right to abort is legally entrenched, and thus the university cannot support any group that opposes the exercising of the that right.
The contrary argument is that when it comes to freedom of expression, popular consensus or arbitrary mission statements on an issue are non-sequiturs. Take Marxists as an example. More than 99 per cent of Canadians oppose the installation of a Marxist regime in Ottawa, and the Supreme Court is settled on the matter. Nevertheless, pamphlet-waving campus Marxists are a staple of most Canadian campuses, UTM included.
If the UTMSU rejects "Students for Life" on the grounds that they offend popular consensus, the objection is also a challenge to Marxists. In fact, this defence is especially a threat to Marxists, who remain consistently unpopular. On the other hand a recent Angus Reid opinion poll found that 56 per cent of Canadians had some objection to the current legal status of abortion — hardly fringe.
Turning away from the mounting legal arguments, student reactions have a different tone. An overwhelming number of posters in the U of T subreddit back the UTMSU decision with anecdotes of times that "Students for Life" demonstrators have provoked crowds with “gory images of fetuses.”
While Adade has yet to make a public statement, his position may fall in the same vein. Many, Adade included, could see these images as exceptionally manipulative when it comes to dissuading women from accessing abortion. Believing images to have extraordinary persuasive power, Adade’s charge that "Students for Life" are telling folks, especially women, what to do with their bodies,” is a more compelling one. With this in mind, the UTMSU could be inclined to deny the group club status in order to uphold their mandate to defend the individual rights of students.
In an email to "Students for Life" in August, Adade wrote, “...you folks can’t put them down for making a decision that doesn’t fit with your mandate.”
On this point he might be right.
But then a lawyer could tell the UTMSU the same thing.
More to come as information becomes available.