Canada March 5, 2018

Ontario campus groups may appeal of disappointing court decision 

By Deborah Gyapong

An Ontario court’s decision will make it more difficult for students with minority viewpoints to participate in the free exchange of ideas on campus, says John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. (CCN file photo)

Canadian Catholic News
OTTAWA—Two pro-life clubs and a men’s issues association are considering whether to appeal a Feb. 26 court decision that upheld their being banned from official club status on their respective campuses.

“It’s too early to say whether there will definitely be an appeal,” said Marty Moore, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms who represented the groups. “We’re reviewing the decision, and will be working with the clients to makes sure we will support them strategically going forward, but we can’t say for sure that’s going to be an appeal.”

“The Court’s erroneous decision, if left to stand, will make it much more difficult for students with minority viewpoints to participate in the free exchange of ideas on campus,” said Justice Centre president John Carpay.

“To make matters worse, these students are still conscripted into paying membership dues to these student unions, despite not being able to receive equal access to services provided by these unions.”

“Any time you are fighting for the rights of minorities you need to be in it for the long haul,” Moore said. “In this case, the rights of people with minority opinions and beliefs are being systematically attacked and discriminated against on university campuses.”

“So we need to make sure we as a society and as a country continue to support those with opinions that we may or may not agree with but that we not be discouraged when we see majoritarian sentiments prevailing, but that we continue to fight for the freedom of all Canadians and of all students.”

Ontario Superior Court of Justice Judge J. Perell dismissed Feb. 26 the law suits of the University of Toronto at Mississauga (UTM) Students for Life (SFL) against the UTM Students’ Union; of the pro-life group Speak for the Weak against the Student Association at Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT); and of the Men’s Issues Awareness Society (MAIS) against the Ryerson Students’ Union. The three cases were heard together on Jan. 24.

“It was not surprising but very disappointing,” said Chad Hagel, president of UTM Students for Life. “It’s not unexpected. We had been following similar cases.”

Though Hagel said they were “a little perturbed” by the judge’s comments, “we’re very calm and we’re taking it bit by bit.”

Justice Perell agreed with the Justice Centre’s position that the court had jurisdiction to examine whether the student unions followed their own rules. However, even though he recognized the students paid mandatory student dues, he said club status is not an entitlement but a privilege and the student unions, as private associations, have the right to make their own policies for selecting who gets club status.

According to the Justice Centre, the Durham College Students’ Association only considers official status for clubs that “support abortion” because only they are “equity-seeking.” 

The Ryerson Men’s Issues Awareness Society established in 2015 to discuss issues that “disproportionately affect men and boys such as higher rates of society, homelessness, workplace injuries and failure in school,” was denied status because some argued it would make women on campus feel unsafe.

Justice Perell noted the Ryerson Student Union has a “strong ideological and political orientation,” including describing itself as a “pro-feminist organization” and that it had the right to make the decision on club membership according to its policies. 

In the case involving UTM SFL, the judge said it was “understandable” Hagel and the other applicants would be “disappointed, aggrieved, offended and angry” about how the UTM Students Union (SU) handled their request to renew their club status, but they “have attributed to discrimination, censorship, banishment, and bad faith what is more aptly attributable to the SU’s incompetence.”

In all three cases, the judge held the groups’ freedom of speech and association was not violated by the decision to deny them club status, because they were still able to operate and attract members despite lacking access to various club privileges such as being able to book campus facilities, have an information table during club week, put up posters and so on.

“It is somewhat odd that SFL even wants to be a Union Club having regard to its own prolife orientation and to the SU’s publicly-declared pro-choice orientation,” he said. “SFL has probably gained more publicity and support for its cause by the denial of official club status than it would garner by being a Union Club.”

In the case of Speak for the Weak, the judge noted it is “apparently thriving on campus” without official status. As in the other cases, the judge ruled the Student Association did not “breach its own rules and regulations.”

Moore said the decisions contain some contradictions, such as chalking up inappropriate behavior by the UTM SU to incompetence. “There are puzzling statements in these three decisions.”

While not governed by the Charter, the various student unions did have clauses in their constitution respecting religious freedom and conscience rights which the Justice Centre argued they did not follow.