University pro-lifers win appeal over security fee that nixed events

EDMONTON, Alberta — The Alberta Court of Appeal has ruled in favor of a student pro-life group that was charged a $17,500 security fee to stage events on the University of Alberta campus.

“It’s very significant. This is an encouragement for anybody to say things on campus that may be unpopular, so long as it is lawful and peaceful,” said Jay Cameron, a lawyer representing UAlberta Pro-Life. The court decision was announced Jan. 6.

The University of Alberta campus is seen in this file photo. UAlberta Pro-Life won its appeal of a controversial security fee implemented by the university for staging events on campus, successfully arguing that it violated freedom of expression. (CNS photo/Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media file photo)

“The courts saw that when students are speaking at a public university, there are constitutional rights implicated in that activity, and the university was improper in imposing that security fee. Our constitutional rights exist whether our opinions are popular or in the minority, and our universities ought to function in the same way,” Cameron said.

In 2015, UAlberta Pro-Life staged a campus-approved event. Its display provoked a protest in which university students and others attempted to cover graphic images of aborted fetuses in the display.

When UAlberta Pro-Life applied for a similar two-day display in 2016, the university demanded the students first come up with $17,500 to pay for security and to barricade their display.

At the time, the university released a statement supporting the group’s right to free expression. However, UAlberta Pro-Life has been the only campus group charged such a large security fee, and the cost has prevented the group from hosting events on campus. Smaller security fees have been issued for other student events, such as those that include alcohol.

“The thing is, if the university makes it too expensive for a student group to express themselves, then that is a form of censorship,” said Amberlee Duteau, the former president of UAlberta Pro-Life who initially took the matter to court.

“Whether it’s pro-life clubs or other groups, I hope this will give them that extra security and legal certainty they need to be empowered and express their opinions on campus. Because the court ruled in our favor, places that haven’t had to deal with this censorship won’t have to now.”

Duteau is also a member of the National Campus Life Network, a Canada-wide organization that works with pro-life university students. She said it is common for pro-life groups to be singled out on campuses.

Duteau said she hopes this court decision emboldens UAlberta Pro-Life and other pro-life groups.

“The U of A’s pro-life club is still figuring out what the future will look like now. Whatever they decide to do, I hope they make use of this legal victory, because this is a message that needs to be promoted on campus.”

A spokesman for the University of Alberta said the university was reviewing the court of appeal decision and declined further comment.

Cameron said he hopes the ruling will set a clear precedent, not only for the University of Alberta, but for other universities across the country.

“The decision is meant to be a guide for the University of Alberta, and by implication other universities as well, in ensuring there are protections afforded for free speech on campus,” said Cameron, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which had taken up the legal fight on behalf of UAlberta Pro-Life.

“It’s a vindication for the pro-life group first of all, and the court of appeal sent a clear message that the University of Alberta made a mistake in this case. It remains to be seen what the university will say now when there is another application for an event of this nature.”