By Jackie Hong and Jake Scott
The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) has shut out a pro-life group on campus.
The RSU Board of Directors unanimously voted to deny Students For Life at Ryerson (SFLR) club status at a meeting on Feb. 23. The SFLR originally applied for club status on Oct. 30, 2014, had its application denied and then appealed the decision. The Feb. 23 vote was the last step in the appeal.
“Our club stands for human rights for all human beings, including those at the earliest stages of life. We also want to support pregnant students on campus who want alternatives to abortion,” said Carter Grant, a second year business student and vice-president of SFLR, in a press release.
According to the press release, the Student Groups Committee said it denied SFLR club status because the RSU “opposes…groups, meetings, or events that promote misogynist views towards woman [sic] and ideologies that promote gender inequity, challenges women’s right [sic] to bodily autonomy, or justifies [sic] sexual assault.”
“If the student union is going to accuse students of serious things like misogyny, they should be prepared to explain the basis for that. We are still waiting for that explanation,” Grant said in the release.
In an interview, Grant said that he and the two other group members plan on fighting the decision and have received support not only from students, but from across the country.
“Students from across Canada have messaged us giving us their words of support … We’ve had past alumni from Ryerson sending us emails and messages saying, ‘Keep the fight going,’” Grant said. He added that at the beginning of the year, the SFLR got 31 students to sign a petition saying they would support the creation of a group like the SFLR on campus “only with a couple of hours.”
Grant said he and other supporters have written to university administration, including Ryerson President Sheldon Levy, asking them to step in.
The SFLR has also set up a Facebook page called “Support Students For Life at Ryerson.” The page has garnered 146 likes in less than a day. The SFLR website urges Ryerson students to support their cause by contacting Levy and RSU President Rajean Hoilett with complaints and concerns.
Rebecca Richmond, executive director of the National Campus Life Network (NCLN), said she supports the SFLR. NCLN works with pro-life student groups across Canada, “The student union policies that say that they respect free speech but they’re not adhering to it. I think the university should do something. I think it undermines the institution of the university and that free speech, free expression is a core value,” Richmond said.
Richmond said the RSU is not the only student union to deny a pro-life group club status.
“We’ve seen in recent years other student unions behave similarly, however they didn’t get away with it in the cases of Trent or Brandon University,” said Richmond. “They all ended up giving the student groups their status.”
This is the second time Grant has applied to have a pro-life group registered on Ryerson campus.
Grant applied to have Preserving Human Dignity at Ryerson (PHDR) registered on Oct. 11, 2013, but received an email on Oct. 28 from Leatrice O’Neill, Campus Groups Administrator for the RSU, tell him the application had been denied. O’Neill also instructed Grant to go to then RSU President Melissa Palermo with any questions.
Grant emailed Palermo asking why PHDR was rejected.
“After your presentation the committee had concerns regarding your groups [sic] proposed events. Your group discussed that though students from either side of the debate was welcome, some students might not feel comfortable,” Palermo responded.
Grant appealed the decision but that was also denied.
Grant said in an interview that the SFLR is different from PHDR because it specifically focuses on pro-life stances on abortion and euthanasia, while PHDR was “more of an all-encompassing bioethics group.”
The PHDR being denied club status was a part of the reason why the RSU earned a F for practices in the 2014 Campus Freedom Index, an annual report put together by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). The JCCF is an organization focused on the fundamental freedoms defined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The report said parts of RSU policy “clearly infringes the expression rights of student groups, particularly religious and political student groups” and “gives discretion to the RSU … to censor speech that is deemed to carry political or religious messages.” Overall, the RSU was ranked as the fifth-worst student union in Canada for upholding freedom of expression. The JCCF gave the university a C for policies and an A for practices.
SFLR has not contacted the JCCF nor has it been contacted by the JCCF, Grant said in an interview. However Carol Crosson, the lawyer who wrote the press release for the SFLR, is a previous employee as the litigation director of the JCCF.
Pro-life groups on university campuses is an issue that’s been raging on for years. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) passed an emergency motion in 2008 that read “member (unions) that refuse to allow anti-choice organizations access to their resources and space be supported” in support of Lakehead University Students’ Union (LUSU), denying club status to pro-life group Life Support.
“We understand that abortion is a hot-button issue, so we understand that many people have differing views on this issue. But we do believe that healthy debate needs to be at Ryerson,” said Grant.
At the time of writing the RSU and Ryerson administration has yet to respond.