Commentary  No to hate speech

The administration should protect its students

A fter exhausting all other possible recourse for preventing the event “Echoes of the Holocaust” from taking place on campus, we chose to participate in the disruption of the event. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and other exuberantly sung musical numbers are, in our opinion, a measured and appropriate response to the presence of that particular presentation and the organization behind it at McGill. Our action was not a pro-choice protest, nor did we hope to convince anyone in the room to become or to remain pro-choice. We do not seek out anti-abortion events off campus in order to disrupt them, but we felt obligated to stop this event from happening on campus because it violated McGill’s policy on student rights.

We do not presume to speak on behalf of all the disrupters at the event. However, we did consult with other disrupters in writing this article, and their responses are expressed here. We were not permitted to write this article anonymously, but wished to because of the backlash that our actions have already received. Disrupters whose names were published have been subject to angry messages from complete strangers, and have had their identities referenced on the National Post’s Full Comment blog (“McGill abortion advocates block opposing opinions,” October 9, 2009); videos of the entire event have been posted on YouTube against our wishes. YouTube comments single out individual protesters based on appearance and clothing, speculate about their sexualities, and say that the protestors deserve to be tasered or beaten. It appears that YouTube has removed the most threatening comments, but there are messages on other web sites saying that the protestors deserve to be punished and demanding that they identify themselves.

Some of us had qualms about this action, as we had never chosen to censor an event. We are not a club and did not have an organizer. In response to Jose Ruba’s allegation that we did not know the content of the event and were afraid of the truth, we would like to assure him that many disrupters had viewed Ruba’s material online and were familiar with the content of his presentation.

Choose Life can thank SSMU’s trusting nature for its current status as a SSMU club. During the SSMU council meeting of October 2, 2008, which gave the club interim status, Choose Life President Natalie Fohl said, “We have decided against graphic images.” This should be viewed as a promise to SSMU councillors – no councillors at that meeting defended the proliferation of sensationalized abortion imagery on campus. The condition that Choose Life not use graphic images was paramount in the decision to grant the group club status. One year later, at the SSMU Council meeting of October 1, 2009, Fohl asserted that what she said in 2008 did not amount to a promise.

In our research, we found that Ruba, the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR), and Choose Life are all part of a larger phenomenon tied to the National Campus Life Network (NCLN). This organization operates across Canada, giving support and funding to start up pro-life clubs on university campuses, including Guelph, Carleton, the University of British Columbia, St. Mary’s, and the University of Calgary, among others. The clubs act as a foot in the door for events such as “Echoes of the Holocaust” and the “Genocide Awareness Project,” both of which are put on by the CCBR and rely on graphic abortion imagery to make their point. Often, the student governments are provoked to ban or withdraw support from the clubs because of the harmful effects on students. Human rights complaints are then filed against these student governments by anti-abortion groups. It is possible that Choose Life did not intentionally manipulate SSMU into granting them club status, but their actions resemble those of other student anti-abortion clubs rooted in the NCLN.

What link is there between the NCLN and Choose Life? The club is listed on NCLN’s web site as one of their campus groups, and the club’s affiliation to the NCLN is stated in its constitution; at Choose Life’s events, free NCLN-produced anti-abortion pamphlets and flyers have been circulated. Furthermore, NCLN provides many resources to campus anti-abortion clubs, including a list of appropriate speakers and events – Ruba and the CCBR are first on the list of “Campus Speakers” on their site. What’s more, the NCLN’s web site acts as a conduit for Choose Life, instructing readers to consult NCLN for more information on the club.

Now, some may find it surprising that Choose Life went ahead with “Echoes of the Holocaust,” despite threats that holding the event on campus would result in their inability to ever receive funding from SSMU. But since the event took place at McGill without funding from SSMU, it seems reasonable to assume that Choose Life members paid for Ruba’s speech out of pocket, that he came for free, or that Choose Life received some other form of external monetary support. In light of the fact that Choose Life was able to hold “Echoes of the Holocaust” without SSMU funding, it’s clear that the club does not require SSMU’s financial support.

All the research we have done about the CCBR has shown that their primary goal is to remove abortion as an option for anyone (including survivors of rape and incest), permanently.

Inciting hatred against any “identifiable group” is an indictable offence under the Criminal Code of Canada. Because of this law, the CCBR’s web site is meticulously worded to avoid overtly hateful speech. But the CCBR’s American affiliate, the Center for Bioethical Research is not subjected to these laws – their web site shows no effort to avoid hateful speech. A quick peek at the two groups’ web sites makes it abundantly clear that despite their differences on paper, they share the same goals and strategies.

Because our university is a relatively liberal environment, many people who are pro-choice think that the fight for abortion rights is over in Canada and that it’s best simply to ignore anti-abortion activist organizations like the CCBR. To this, we point out that women die in large numbers when they are not granted access to safe and legal abortions. It’s also important to remember that the CCBR and its American affiliate are part of an extensive network of influential organizations that lobby to restrict access to abortion in Canada and the United States in view of eventually illegalizing abortion. The Canadian Constitution protects the right to safety of person; institutionally denying any woman access to abortion contradicts her absolute right to physical safety. Thus, the politics of the CCBR threaten the safety of women. They are unwelcome on our campus whether or not some students support their views.

McGill students are not the first to have shut down Ruba’s speech. At St. Mary’s University in Halifax, students shouted down “Echoes of the Holocaust.” They disturbed the presentation for an hour and a half until the administration responded by ending the entire event. Organizers then moved the presentation to a nearby chapel – without any police intervention.

At York University in Toronto, a unanimous student union vote in February 2008 resulted in the cancellation of an “abortion debate,” in which Ruba was to argue the “pro-life” position. A member of York’s student union explained that the CCBR is a discriminatory organization, and that they felt accountable for keeping student-funded spaces free of discrimination and harassment. They viewed the event as carefully disguised anti-abortion propaganda. Ruba insisted on showing graphic abortion imagery at the event.

What’s more, the web site of the CCBR, which Ruba co-founded and represents, lists “five types of abortion-minded women.” The fifth – supposedly the only one who will ultimately choose abortion – is the type of woman who goes ahead with an abortion even after being shown graphic videos. According to the CCBR, this type of woman has “hardened her heart to all information.” It follows that the purpose of showing these images is then not to raise discussion as they claim, but rather to scare and shame women out of having abortions. This promotes contempt toward those who are not moved to condemn abortion after they have seen the images.

These images are used in a way that targets and discriminates against pregnant women. We are astonished that administration officials like Morton Mendelson ignored the policy documents that protect constitutional minority rights. McGill’s Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities lists pregnancy as one of the reasons for which an individual cannot be discriminated against or harassed.

In response to those who have accused us of committing a crime against free speech, we remind you that Canada is a country where opinions that incite hatred are censored or curtailed in a public arena. For that, we are thankful. We are thankful that this protection is not up for debate and does not hinge on the opinions of the majority. On the contrary, it is promised by SSMU’s Equity Policy, McGill’s policy on student rights and responsibilities, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We do not know why our figures of authority failed to protect our rights as they are stipulated in these documents. Nevertheless, we remain hopeful that McGill will not remain a university where discrimination and human rights violations are tolerated.

Liam Olson-Mayes is a McGill undergraduate. Write them at