Who pays to protect free speech on campus - 2020-02-21
Indeed, the whole situation only came to a head in 2016, when the pro-life club applied to do it all again. The university said yes, but given the previous year's brouhaha, demanded that the club cover security costs—an estimated $17,500, with a $9,000 deposit up front. It was a price Duteau and company could not and would not pay. "It wasn't our group causing the disruption," she says. "We followed all the rules. We were very careful to make sure to set everything up in a safe and respectful way. Unfortunately, people who disagreed with us expressing our views in the centre of campus that way did not respect our freedom of expression." The club appealed the security-cost decision and another by the university not to discipline any of the pro-choice protesters. The university held firm. Two months later, the club went to court to challenge both decisions.
In 2017, the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench ruled in favour of the university on both issues. However, the cost portion of that ruling was overturned by the appeal court on Jan. 6. In that decision, Justice Jack Watson wrote: "Whether or not the figures are right, it cannot be said that Pro-Life should be held 100 per cent responsible for costs that future events might generate." He went on to encourage alternative scenarios where the university could cover security fees, suggesting better fencing, or "a less provocative" display, adding: "Compromises on both sides are in order."
Universities across the country are watching closely to see whether the precedent holds. U of A had 60 days to seek leave for appeal; at press time, it would say only that it was reviewing the decision. Should the case go to the Supreme Court, the outcome could define how universities deal with the conundrum brought on by the era of so-called "cancel culture." How do they reconcile demands for free speech when the trend toward "deplatforming" controversial voices—obscuring signs, tearing down posters, blocking speaking venues—causes its own confrontations? How do they deal with groups who generate attention by flirting with hate speech, or by deliberately provoking certain social groups?