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Freedom of speech issue at Saint Paul University

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Saint Paul University’s abrupt cancellation of an outside group’s pro-abortion film preceded by a Planned Parenthood panel has heated up debate on free speech in Ottawa.

On the hot seat is Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who last summer spoke of developing a policy of removing funding from universities that do not allow freedom of expression.

Some compare this cancellation to the controversy at Wilfred Laurier University involving a teaching assistant who was sanctioned for showing a video clip to her class that included Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor who opposes the forced use of new gender pronouns.

Organizers of the annual Choice! Birth and Baby Film Festival had planned to show the award-winning documentary Vessel Nov. 25. Vessel is about a woman who began providing abortions aboard ships anchored off the coast of countries where abortion is illegal. Days before, festival organizers received an email from the Catholic university telling them they should change the film or cancel the event. The festival had been held at Saint Paul University for six years previously, but none of the other films were controversial.

“We haven’t heard from the Conservatives and Andrew Scheer on this issue,” said Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan to journalists Nov. 27. “You can’t pick and choose the issues, the free speech issues that you stand up for.”

“Mr. Scheer encourages all universities and colleges to promote free speech and the exchange of ideas and thoughts in an academic setting,” Jake Enwright, a spokesperson for the Conservative leader, told CCN Nov. 28. “As he’s said previously, he respects the right of university and college administrations to determine which outside organizations they allow on their campuses. That is a position he took back in the summer. It isn’t new.”

Phil Horgan, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said it is a bit “rich” for the Liberal Party to be making free speech arguments when they don’t allow members of their own Caucus freedom of speech or conscience on abortion.

“As a Catholic institution of higher learning, St. Paul’s is under no obligation to advance agencies that would present matters contrary to its mission statement and faith-based understandings,” Horgan said.

Horgan was particularly struck by the fact that Planned Parenthood was involved in presenting a panel before the documentary screening on “safe access to medical abortion and taking abortions out of clinics and hospitals,” according to the festival’s Facebook page.

“The better question is why an organization antithetical to well-known teachings of the Catholic faith would pursue such engagements to advance arguments against such teachings at a Catholic institution,” Horgan said. “Where is the convivial respect for difference from this group?

Instead of academic inquiry, this was “engaging in provocation,” he said.

However, Albertos Polizogopoulos, a constitutional lawyer who specializes in religious freedom cases, warned against a double standard.

“If we want to be consistent, it would have to include this scenario, unless you made an exception for faith-based organizations,” he said. “I don’t know whether it should be made.”

Polizogopoulos stressed the Charter does not apply to Saint Paul University or Wilfrid Laurier University. “They didn’t violate the Charter and are not bound by the Charter,” he said. “The religious freedom argument could potentially be made in the same way churches and religious halls have been asked to host weddings that go against that religious groups’ beliefs,” he said. “That’s been unsuccessful in cases where the organization rents their spaces to outsiders.”

Legally, however, Saint Paul University hasn’t broken any laws, or discriminated against any enumerated group, he said.

Saint Paul University, however, is not engaging religious freedom arguments.

“This is a business matter between Saint Paul and an external non-academic entity,” said Fidèle Lavigne, a spokesperson for the university. “We decided not to have the film here because it was a security issue.”

Lavigne said the university had hosted an event several years ago that brought protesters. “They caused damage. The fire alarm went off. Police had to come on campus.”

“The security of our student population comes first,” she said. “These were external events not organized by anyone on campus.”

Wendy Jolliffe, an organizer of the film festival, told Global News she got the impression the university was forced to cancel the venue. “From what I understood it was completely out of their hands,” she said. “It’s way up in the Catholic Church. Exactly what level it was, you’d have to check with them but I get the impression it was very high. It was not something they could control at the university.”

But Lavigne disagreed. “It’s not a matter of the archdiocese of Rome,” she said. “If people want them to comment, they should contact them directly.”

The archdiocese is not commenting officially. However, a spokesperson did tell CCN the archdiocese had received several complaints after the festival published a Facebook page promoting the event. The archdiocese simply passed the complaints on to the university, he said, noting the decision to cancel was the university’s.



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