Free Speech Controversy

October 20th, 2017

Photo by Varenka Kim

Photo by Varenka Kim

Pro-Choice and Pro-Life demonstrations at UBC Okanagan.

Students have questioned the merit of permitting Pro-Life demonstrations at UBCO, where such views are generally unpopular. Last week’s Pro-Life demonstration was no exception. The protest was contested by a Pro-Choice demonstration organized by students. Nevertheless, UBCO is committed to upholding the right to free speech.

Director of University Relations, Bud Mortenson, explains, “we have to uphold the right to freedom of expression on campus, whether it is towards the public or towards the campus community itself.” The UBC Okanagan Senate statement on Academic Freedom reiterates this point. Any group “could show up anytime, anywhere and hold a demonstration on campus.”

The Kelowna Right to Life Society protested in the main courtyard at UBCO on October 12 and 13. The Pro-Life group of about 400 members rallies against legal abortion in Canada. Marlon Bartram, the leader of the Pro-Life protest, states “the purpose of the demonstration is to expose the reality of abortion to a demographic that is most likely to get abortions and also is still forming their worldviews.” There were four to five members of Kelowna Right to Life and three members of the Canadian Center for Bioethical Reform expressing their Pro-Life standpoints. At demonstrations, these protesters call themselves “Expose The Reality.” The group explained and argued their purpose to people who stopped by. Their display of graphic images led to passionate discussions on campus.

UBC aims to draw a clear line between the institution and views displayed at the university. A disclaimer on the UBC Demonstrations website states, “UBC does not endorse the views expressed by any particular demonstration. […] The university values the free, lawful and respectful expression of all views and opinions, even those that some may find disagreeable or upsetting.” Mortenson explains that because demonstrations are new to UBCO, the institution “communicated [the Pro-Life demonstration] to the student community with an email.”

UBC’s announcement of the Pro-Life demonstration allowed students to organize a counter-protest in advance. Tamara Raine, Women’s Resource Centre representative, explained that she brainstormed together with other students, “set up poster-making sessions…[and] connected with a variety of groups.” Tamara aimed to create a distraction from the Pro-Life demonstration’s graphic imagery, stating that “the purpose of the Pro-Choice protest was to give [like-minded] students an outlet to have their voices heard.”


Any group “could show up anytime, anywhere and hold a demonstration on campus.”


Last year, Pro-Choice protesters located themselves close to their opposition. Raine explained that this created a lot of confusion. This year, counter-protesters decided to “turn their backs to misinformation” by facing away from the Pro-Life demonstration. According to Raine, participants of the Pro-Choice gathering ranged from five to ten. Jaclyn Salter, a Pro-Choice supporter and co-coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center, explained that she demonstrated “for access to safe and legal abortion.”

Even though Pro-Choice protesters did not wish to communicate with members of the Pro-Life group, there were several reports of Kelowna Right to Life protesters trying to spark debate. Raine explained that Pro-Lifers “would slowly change from just looking at posters to sharing false information about abortion.”

Last week was not the first time Pro-Life standpoints were rejected by students at UBCO. Pro-Life groups have worked tirelessly to find a voice at UBCO’s overwhelmingly liberal campus, developing a history of tensions with the campus community.

When the UBCO campus was established in 2005 a Pro-Life club approached the Student Union and was allowed to demonstrate with the understanding that they would respect all members of the campus and not display or distribute hate propaganda. That same year the club hosted their Genocide Awareness Project display, which portrayed abortions as genocide. This went against the agreement they had with the Student Union.

When this club approached the Student Union in 2006, the Union offered UBCO students the chance to vote on whether or not they wanted the club re-ratification. The vote determined that the majority of the student body did not support ratification of this club and the request for re-ratification was denied. The club then appealed the decision to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on the grounds of political and religious freedom, and many refusals resulted in an appeal to the provincial Supreme Court in 2008, who ruled that clubs were not guaranteed funding simply because they were religious. The club was denied renewal of club status.

In 2016, heavy debating erupted within the Student Union, when a handful of former executives agreed to approve a Kelowna Right to Life Society demonstration to take place on campus. Although the UBCSUO has no say in who can demonstrate on campus, the Vice Presidents, not able to weigh in on the decision, quickly responded in an open letter, stating the UBCSUO “should never support or agree upon” an anti-abortion demonstration at this campus. After long discussions, the dispute was resolved.

Marlon Bartram said, “Kelowna Right to Life’s first two or three demonstrations were at the roundabout leading from Highway 97 to campus.” The group’s first demonstration at the UBCO campus took place in January of 2017.

Ever since last year’s Pro-Choice demonstration, the discussion revolving around freedom of expression at UBCO has not died down. The fact of the matter is that legally, all groups have the right to demonstrate at our campus at any time. Mortenson says, “demonstrations will become more common as the campus grows.”

Photo by Varenka Kim

Photo by Varenka Kim

Photo by Varenka Kim

Photo by Varenka Kim

Photo by Varenka Kim

Photo by Varenka Kim

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