Alberta’s Court of Appeal has ruled that the University of Alberta was wrong to ask a student group to provide $17,500 to cover security costs as a condition before holding an anti-abortion protest on campus, in a decision that appears to extend free expression rights to postsecondary campuses.
A student’s freedom of expression on a university campus is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court ruled in a decision released on Monday. The court found that the Edmonton-based university failed to balance the campus group’s rights with the risk of counterdemonstrations in requiring such a hefty security fee.
The court’s recognition that Charter rights apply to students on campuses is largely unprecedented in Canada and aligns Alberta closely with the position taken by American courts that security costs violate the exercise of free speech, according to Nathan Whitling, a lawyer who worked for the BC Civil Liberties Association as an intervenor in the case.
The court’s decision follows a push by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s government to require universities to clarify and strengthen their free-speech policies by the end of last year.
Jay Cameron, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms who represented the campus group in the case, said he was pleased with the court’s decision. “It sets out protections for students on university grounds that had not been set out as distinctly in the past as in this case,” Mr. Cameron said.
“Now, a university can’t prevent events from proceeding or prevent expression based on the content of expression, as long as that content is otherwise legal. And it’s legal to hold pro-life views,” he added.
The events in the case started in March, 2015, when the group UAlberta Pro-Life mounted large photo displays in the University of Alberta’s main quad. A counterdemonstration was formed by students, faculty, staff and members of the public, which held up banners and chanted to obstruct the event.
When the group applied to hold a similar display in 2016, the university said its approval was conditional on UAlberta Pro-Life providing $17,500 to cover expected security costs. The group responded that the proposed sum was prohibitive and denied them their freedom of expression. On Monday, the court sided with the group.
In its ruling, the court found that making a university subject to the Charter “in relation to freedom of expression by students on university grounds does not threaten the ability of the university to maintain its independence or to uphold its academic standards.” In a concurring opinion, two of the three judges who presided over the case found that the reasoning on the Charter’s application was correct, but wasn’t essential to the case.
Hallie Brodie, a spokeswoman for the university, said in a statement: “The University of Alberta will be reviewing the decision in detail and therefore reserves further comment at this time.”
In three previous cases, courts in Ontario, Saskatchewan and B.C. have ruled that the Charter does not extend to students on campus, according to Mr. Whitling. Alberta’s decision now sets the province apart. “Essentially, Alberta is now in line with the position in the U.S. There have been many cases in the U.S. that confirm it is unconstitutional to impose a security cost for the exercise of free speech. This is the first Canadian case to adopt that position,” he said.
Mr. Kenney’s government gave university campuses until mid-December to adopt free-speech codes that enshrine the principle that no one may obstruct the free-speech rights of others and that students mustn’t be shielded from ideas. The government has said it may withhold part of a university’s funding in future years if it doesn’t uphold the new free-speech policies.
Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides’s office declined to comment on the court’s decision and the government’s free-speech policy.
“Given the autonomy of the Alberta’s postsecondary institutions, it would be inappropriate for the government to become involved in the operations of the institution,” said press secretary Laurie Chandler.
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