UTM Students For Life (UTM SFL) has commenced legal proceedings against the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) on the grounds that the union did not renew the club’s status for the 2015–2016 year.
According to the legal Affidavit of Diane Zettel, one of three applicant parties and president of UTM SFL, the UTMSU did not recognize the club because of its stance on abortion.
“Students For Life, which has been recognized by UTMSU in the past, was not recognized for the upcoming school year due to their stance on abortion, in terms of being pro-life and using their platform to tell women what they should do in those situations,” said Russ Adade, UTMSU vice-president, campus life, in a report to the UTMSU Board of Directors dated August 24, 2015. Adade’s report is referenced and included in its entirety as an accompanying document to Zettel’s affidavit.
Adade allegedly told UTM SFL that its constitution conflicted with the UTMSU’s mission statement on the basis that “[UTM SFL is] telling folks, especially women, what to do with their bodies” and that “you folks can’t put them down for making a decision that doesn’t fit with your mandate.”
The Notice of Application claims that the UTMSU did not provide UTM SFL with adequate reasons to understand and address their concerns.
Zettel said that there was no change in UTM SFL’s stance on abortion from the previous year. “Our mandate has always been to: a) Inform and educate the public on life issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and euthanasia; b) Train and equip pro-life leaders within UTM SFL membership [and] c) Direct the public to various pro-life resources, such as crisis pregnancy and post abortion centers,” Zettel said in an email interview.
The Notice of Application claims that the UTMSU attempted to change the basis for its decision not to renew UTM SFL’s club status, that the UTMSU interfered with an election for UTM SFL, and that the union ignored the club’s communications.
None of the claims in the Notice of Application have been proven in court.
The Notice of Application claims that “no UTMSU rule, policy or by-law grants UTMSU authority to withhold club recognition based on clubs’ political or moral orientation, or the shared beliefs or viewpoints of club members.”
The UTMSU’s Policy Manual states that “[the] objectives and activities of groups seeking recognition should be seen as attempting to contribute to the educational, recreational, social, or cultural values of the University of Toronto at Mississauga community.”
The Notice of Application further claims that there were in-camera discussions about UTM SFL at Clubs Committee meetings on August 17, 2015 and August 19, 2015, the latter of which allegedly included an in-camera vote on UTM SFL’s club recognition, a motion which was defeated. The notice also alleges that UTM SFL was not notified of or given an opportunity to present at the meetings.
Adade told UTM SFL that they could appeal the Clubs Committee’s decision to the UTMSU’s Board of Directors. The Notice of Application claims that the Board of Directors designated the Clubs Committee to hear UTM SFL’s appeal of the decision, despite the fact that the Clubs Committee itself had made the decision.
In early November, Adade allegedly told UTM SFL that the reasons for which the Clubs Committee declined UTM SFL’s application were due to violations and discrepancies in relation to parts of the Clubs Handbook and the UTMSU Operational Policy, with which clubs must comply, in UTM SFL’s submitted constitution.
UTM SFL maintains that it agreed to amend its constitution, hold an election for another executive member, and then approve the amendments with the new member. The club accused Adade of chicanery in orchestrating a vote against the election of a fourth executive to UTM SFL and of allowing five non-members to vote in said election.
“It seems clear that UTMSU is discriminating against the club because they don’t agree with the club’s point of view,” said Blaise Alleyne, education coordinator for U of T Students For Life, another pro-life campus group that operates of UTSG. “[The] UTMSU seems willing to compromise free expression, respect for its own rules, and basic notions of fairness in order to block a club they simply disagree with.”
John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF), a non-profit legal organization set up “to defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through litigation and education,” said that it was his legal opinion that the UTMSU contradicted its own mandate and policies.
Demands of the application
The JCCF is providing legal representation for UTM SFL and filed the Notice of Application on January 15, 2016.
In the Notice of Application, UTM SFL has asked for “an order that would prohibit UTMSU from limiting access to the services, research, information, materials and other resources of UTMSU on account of students’ and student groups’ personal or political beliefs,” as well as an order directing the UTMSU to give UTM SFL club status.
The Notice of Application also states that, in place of the latter demand, an order could be given for the UTMSU to reconsider UTM SFL’s application for club recognition “in accordance with natural justice, in good faith, and in accordance with any further directions from [the court].”
“We are asking that our club be recognized just like any other club,” said Zettel, expressing extreme disappointment in the UTMSU’s decision. “The UTMSU’s actions have denied our free expression and association on campus by banning us from forming a club […] Free speech and debate, even on controversial issues, should not be stifled at a university simply because people have different positions on it. Censoring those they disagree with is not acceptable in our country; instead we need to engage in respectful, open dialogue, giving all sides of an issue equal opportunity to express their beliefs. We aren’t looking for special treatment, just the same treatment as any other club.”
UTM SFL has not demanded any financial sum — other than legal costs, which are confidential — as part of the suit.
Pro-life campus groups
“A student union shouldn’t be picking sides in a debate. It has a duty to serve all students,” said Alleyne.
According to Zettel, the majority of UTM SFL’s activities involve engaging students in conversation about abortion. She said that the club does not hold protests against abortion using graphic signage.
U of T Students For Life was recently criticized for its use of graphic images while staging demonstrations on campus. Alleyne said that the two groups consider each other friends, but are not formally affiliated.
“I think UTMSU could learn a lot from Students for Choice, the newly formed unofficial student group on the St. George campus,” said Alleyne. Students for Choice obviously disagrees with UTSFL, they’ve been exercising their own free speech as pro-choice students instead of trying to silence pro-life students,” he added, noting that the two groups have had respectful conversations about the issue.
“We can oppose each other without discriminating against each other,” he said. Representatives from Students For Choice declined to comment.
Carpay said that he has not seen any signs that the UTMSU will offer to settle and that any possible hearing could be between four and 10 months away. “Typically you can’t just get a hearing in a week or two. It typically takes a few months,” he said.
As of press time, the UTMSU had not responded to several requests for comment.