At the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) debate on March 21, the candidates for Vice-President Campus Life — Yolanda Alfaro of the Compass slate and Spencer Robertson, who ran as an independent — were asked about their positions on the UTSU funding clubs that are considered ‘controversial.’ The example given was Students for Life, a pro-life group known for its graphic signs and forthright, provocative campus demonstrations.
Alfaro, who was ultimately elected to the position, gave what seemed like a perfectly sensible response. She insisted that, if a decision were made to deny funding, that decision would not be about discriminating against people’s beliefs, but rather it would have more to do with student safety.
The funding of pro-life groups on campus is an issue that has been brought before the courts. Earlier this year, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union was in court facing a lawsuit by three members of UTM Students for Life. Similar suits were brought by pro-life groups at Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and a ‘men’s issues’ group at Ryerson University. Another lawsuit with a pro-life group was previously settled in favour of the Ryerson Students’ Union in 2016.
Even if the UTSU does not have a legal obligation to fund certain provocative, controversial, or unpopular clubs, it should adopt a policy that allows for a wide range of views to be supported as clubs on campus. This is the case even if those views are controversial or only held by a minority of students.
On its face, Alfaro’s response at the debate was the right one. She made the crucial distinction between groups that hold unpopular beliefs and groups that represent a threat to student safety. Groups that incite or threaten violence, or that have openly discriminatory or hateful agendas that target marginalized populations, should not get funding. The UTSU — and by extension, all students — should not be involved in sustaining those types of clubs on campus.
But when I reached out for Alfaro for comment, she blurred that distinction to the point of nonexistence. While she provided that her “stance is not quite directed towards controversial clubs, because not everyone would share the same idea of ‘controversial’ as me,” that caveat didn’t hold up. Of Students for Life, she said, “When demonstrations start happening on campus that can be triggering to folks who just want to feel safe walking to class, that’s where I disagree.”
Alfaro is implying that coming into contact with Students for Life can be damaging to students’ safety or wellbeing. Given that Students for Life poses no physical threat to safety, however, the source of concern stems from the group’s expression of its pro-life views, which are upsetting to many students.
Alfaro’s argument therefore blurs the crucial line between ‘controversial’ and ‘harmful,’ because it suggests that the articulation of a position itself can pose a threat to student safety if the view is offensive enough. While we need to be sensitive to the reality that some students may be adversely affected by a group like Students for Life, not recognizing or funding a group for that reason sets a dangerous precedent.
As long as the UTSU is in the business of supporting political and advocacy groups, being considered ‘controversial’ should not be a barrier to funding. First and foremost, there is the problem that Alfaro herself recognized: the UTSU should not be put in charge of deciding exactly what views students can handle being exposed to. Being the arbiter of political opinions on campus is beyond the VP’s job description, and giving the UTSU the ability to deny funding based on those opinions is incompatible with open discourse.
The perceived broad unpopularity of a group or the position it represents should not be a barrier to funding either. Even if the number of people who support Students for Life is dwarfed by the number of people who oppose it, that shouldn’t be a reason to deny the group funding. Broad support or interest is just not something we typically expect of our student clubs. There is already a minimum amount of popularity that a prospective club needs to have before it is recognized in the first place: the UTSU mandates that a club has a membership list of at least 30 people to qualify for even the minimum level of funding. Attracting interest that far exceeds the names on that list should simply not be a consideration as far as recognition or funding goes.
Finally, and most importantly, we ought to acknowledge that a diverse student body is bound to have a diverse set of beliefs, and that a wide variety of those beliefs ought to be given a platform even if many of us find some of those beliefs disagreeable.
It doesn’t help to pretend that abortion is no longer a contentious issue, either on campus or in Canadian society more broadly. Any issue so complex is bound to generate a huge array of differing views that goes way beyond the ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’ dichotomy. And we can see in politics that the question is still open, even if we would prefer it settled: leaders of major parties in both the upcoming provincial and federal elections are known to have pro-life views and voting records.
Open and equal discourse is constructive discourse, and constructive discourse is a goal worth striving for. This means protecting the distinction between ‘harmful’ and ‘controversial.’ Clubs that threaten the physical safety of students are one thing. But ‘controversial’ is in the eye of the beholder, and we should make sure that there is room on campus for disagreeable and unpopular views, as well as for the students and clubs that promote them.
Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.