You can’t put a price on free speech, unless you’re UAlberta

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If you’re going to block freedom of expression on a university campus, you’d better have a more believable reason than an inflated security fee. 

Eleven days before their scheduled on-campus protest, UAlberta Pro-Life — a student group that protests against abortion — had to cancel because the university imposed a $17,500 security fee. 

The group has added this fee to their ongoing lawsuit against the University of Alberta, which claims that the university failed to uphold their freedom of expression at a similar protest last year, where their signs showed graphic images of abortions were covered by counter-protestors.

The club’s president defended the protest, stating, “The entire point of university is to engage with controversy in a respectful and thoughtful way.” 

Displaying disturbing images to make a point is neither thoughtful nor respectful. 

The president’s argument that the upsetting nature of these images should also make us question the morality of abortion is nonsensical. Basing morality on appearance would make abortion just about as immoral as open-heart surgery. 

So if this group wants to use deliberately provocative practices, they should be expected to pay for the consequences when people are provoked. 

However, regardless of the popularity of their stance, anti-abortion groups have a legal right to protest in Canada. And while it’s well within the university’s rights to charge them a security fee, as they do with all groups, the amount is questionable.

On the one hand, the large security fee could be justified. The group’s protest last year caused quite a ruckus, and a similar commotion this year would result in increased security costs. 

But on the other hand, the magnitude of the fee is entirely stopping the protest. And there’s something wrong about that. 

Any way you slice it, slapping a clearly unfeasible, and unexplained, fee on a student group is shady and implies an ulterior motive. 

It’s difficult to justify the drastic leap in cost from last year’s $225 fee to $17,500, which makes this look like a targeted use of the university’s power to shut down an unpopular protest, not a genuine desire to ensure student safety.

So, while there may not be an outright denial of the group’s right to protest, they’re getting in the way to an inordinate degree. 

Moreover, the university can’t have been unaware that this group has a tendency to paint themselves as martyrs for free speech — and  that by extension the administration would be painted as oppressors of student voices. 

Even a superficial look at past activist movements is enough to illustrate that what’s an unpopular opinion at the time shouldn’t necessarily dictate how we judge their protest tactics or treat their right to protest. 

It does no good for the University of Alberta to counter poor tactics with an even poorer excuse. 

Journal Editorial Board 

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