Northlands, a non-profit organization that hosts events in Edmonton, reversed its shameful decision to bar Edmonton Prolife (EPL), a non-profit anti-abortion group, from hosting a booth at K-Days 2017.
The main allegation made by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a free speech organization representing Edmonton Prolife, was that Northlands’ initial decision violated Edmonton Prolife’s freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Although Northlands informed Edmonton Prolife that the ban was based on a new policy to preclude political and religious organizations, JCCF concluded that “the exclusion of (Edmonton Prolife) was solely related to the content of its expression, and not the legitimate application of the new policy”.
One main question arises: Is Northlands a government entity or a private group? Freedom of expression under the Charter only applies to government organizations. Private groups can ban whomever they wish from their events. The Justice Centre notes that K-Days runs on property owned by the City of Edmonton, Northlands receives most of its funding from the municipal government, and many government employees are on Northlands’ board of directors. Rachel Notley, the Premier of Alberta, and Lois Mitchell, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, are both Honorary Directors. Although Northlands is officially a non-profit organization, it is clear that, at the very least, Northlands is a government actor. Therefore, the group had no legal right to ban Edmonton Prolife in the first place.
This issue is connected to a broader point: inch by inch, we are promoting an environment that is hostile to freedom of expression. Voltaire’s commendable statement, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is under vicious attack today. Many examples of this illiberal sentiment exist: the shouting down of speakers such as Charles Murray at Middlebury College, the Berkeley riots against Milo Yiannopoulos, the silencing of professors such as Jordan Peterson at McMaster University, and the disruption of pro-life displays at our own university. It seems that many people, including Northlands, have forgotten that freedom of expression forms the foundation for all of our other freedoms. How can we expect to develop as a society and secure the freedoms we take for granted if we cannot even express what is on our minds? In a liberal and democratic society, we all have a moral obligation to defend freedom of expression, especially for those whom we find reprehensible.
Northlands can say it “values the rights and freedoms protected under the Charter” all it wants. It clearly does not value them enough. Paralyzed by fear of causing offense, Northlands banned a harmless booth. For those who find the pro-life booth offensive or “unsafe” as Pro-Choice Edmonton described, there is a simple solution: do not go to it. The argument that K-Days is not the appropriate venue for the discussion of abortion, which Alberta Pro-Choice Coalition member Kathy Dawson expressed, fails to acknowledge the core issue.
Regardless of what anyone thinks about the appropriateness of the venue, Edmonton Prolife legally has the freedom to participate. Northlands’ initial decision set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression. If one group’s speech can be censored by government entities, then anyone else’s speech could be censored next. Fortunately, the reversal of this ban shows that there is some hope left.