UVic anti-abortion club loses public space privileges

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Club censured following contentious Nov. 2011 demonstration

Brandon Rosario
The Martlet (University of Victoria)

VICTORIA (CUP) — After more than three months of committee deliberation, the University of Victoria Students' Society (UVSS) has passed a motion disciplining UVic’s anti-abortion club, Youth Protecting Youth (YPY), for hosting a contentious demonstration on campus in November.

The group’s Choice Chain demonstration featured club members standing in the quad holding large pictures of purportedly aborted fetuses with the interrogative “choice?” overlaid.

During a well-attended UVSS board meeting on Feb. 6 that saw a heated debate over interpretation of the Society’s harassment policies, directors voted in favour of the complaints committee’s recommendations, which included a censure and a suspension of the club’s booking privileges for public spaces until spring 2013.

“I’m disappointed with the decision,” said YPY vice-president Catherine Shenton. “As much as I recognize that people are very upset with our actions, I believe that freedom of speech is more important than feelings.”

Director of student affairs Jenn Bowie, who chaired the complaints committee that recommended the disciplinary action, made it clear that the decision was made as a result of policy violation, saying arguments surrounding the suppression of free speech did not excuse YPY from publicly harassing students with graphic images of abortion.

“When your freedom of speech violates the rights of others and you engage your freedom in a way that causes harassment on a non-consensual basis, then it’s no longer freedom of speech,” said Bowie. “To censure somebody is to publicly express disapproval of an action, and the committee feels that the actions [YPY] took during the Choice Chain event were actions of which we can’t in good [conscience] approve of.”

The motion, which passed with 15 votes in favour, two abstentions and one opposed, did not revoke YPY’s club status or funding. The group will continue to receive booking privileges for Club Days and its meetings, but has been ordered “not to repeat the Violations and, in particular, not to organize or conduct Choice Chain or similar events,” according to the meeting agenda.

The abstentions belonged to directors-at-large Charles Freund and Lucia Orser. Orser is a member of the club Students for Reproductive Justice (SRJ) who filed a complaint about Choice Chain. Director-at-large Gabrielle Sutherland, a former member of YPY, submitted a letter of resignation from the club at the start of the board meeting and was the only director to oppose the motion.

Sutherland was vocally supportive of the club’s assertion that it was not guilty of harassment, calling the policy in question “Out of order and in sad need of being redrafted.”

“It takes away burden of proof from the accuser and removes any presumption of innocence, particularly when you couple it with harassment being a feeling,” she said. “How do I defend myself if I’m accused of harassing somebody based on their feelings? I can’t because to do so would require my ability to read your mind and say you don’t feel a certain way.”

The motion included a specific violation of Section F 2.d of the UVSS Clubs Harassment policy, which identified YPY’s use of graphic images as “[c]ommunicating with another person or group of persons by verbal, electronic, telephonic, written or visual means in a manner that harasses.”

Sutherland was scheduled to propose a motion that would strike the harassment section of Clubs Policy and send it to policy development to redraft. However the meeting was adjourned early due to the tense atmosphere and her proposal was not deliberated.

Before the board voted on the motion, members of the gallery – which included the YPY executive and several representatives from other concerned groups including SRJ – were given the opportunity to speak to the issue.

Marie Clipperton, one of the students who filed a complaint against YPY after its Choice Chain event, said that any concessions the UVSS made to a group that violated harassment policy would send out signals indicating that the board is willing to be bullied.

“No university or student society should grant permission to organizations to hold an event on campus that breaks their very own harassment policy,” said Clipperton. “[YPY] needs to be held accountable just like any other club or person would be.”

Brittany Bernard, a member of SRJ, said she had to assist three distressed women during the Choice Chain demonstration who felt targeted and humiliated by the graphic images being displayed by YPY. Other women found they were unable to attend campus until the demonstration was over.

“The Choice Chain demonstration was a tool used to discriminate against individuals based on family status,” said Bernard, adding that the positioning of YPY in the quad made it almost impossible for students to avoid viewing the images.

YPY vice-president Cameron Cote denied the allegations of discrimination, saying that the use of graphic signage was not an attempt to communicate a moral message, but rather an effort to encourage the consideration of alternative views – something he says is integral to the promotion of cultural and intellectual diversity on campus.

“How can a picture in and of itself harass someone? The pictures were simply pictures, they were simply facts, they don’t pass judgement on people and they say nothing about the morality of abortion,” he said.

YPY indicated they have no intention of defying the Board’s decision, though they plan on holding a meeting to re-evaluate and discuss their situation.

Bowie explained that in the case of noncompliance with a UVSS mandate, further disciplinary action would be considered in another complaints committee.

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