University of Manitoba Students’ Union urged to reject censorship motion

The Justice Centre has sent letters to each member of the Board of Directors of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU), urging them to reject a Motion to have the UMSU take sides in the divisive debate about abortion in Canada.

This Motion, tabled on October 25th by current UMSU president Jakob Sanderson, calls on UMSU to endorse “[a] woman’s right to freedom of reproductive choice; and a woman’s right to be free from coercion or attempted coercion with respect to making reproductive choices.” The Motion further calls upon UMSU to oppose “[a]ny act of coercion or attempted coercion with respect to making reproductive choices.”

Sanderson’s Motion arose from a dispute this fall semester between the UMSU Executive and one of its student groups, Students for a Culture for Life (UMSCL). On September 24, 2018, members of this UMSU-recognized student club were peacefully sharing their opinions with fellow students and offering literature.  The students had prior approval from UMSU to participate in the “tabling” event in the UMSU University Centre building, where various student clubs were promoting their views, interests and activities to fellow students.

Sometime during the event, a group of UMSU executives approached the students and demanded that they cease distributing a postcard discussing sex-selective abortion.  The Postcard cites, among other things, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation regarding sex-selective abortion. The UMSU executives claimed that they had received complaints about the Postcards being “offending” and “off putting”.  The students immediately complied with the executives’ demand.

On September 28, 2018, Carly Mastromonaco, USMU VP Student Services, informed the students by email that not only had the USMU Executive determined that they violated the UMSU Safe Environment Policy, but “all future UMSU table bookings for your group Culture for Life have been revoked until further notice.”  Ms. Mastromonaco believed “complaints of distress and discomfort” warranted this decision.

The students immediately sought to clarify what specific actions the UMSCL had done that breached the Safe Environment Policy.

Eventually, on October 23, 2018, Jakob Sanderson, current president of UMSU, responded, claiming that by sharing the Postcard the students were “discriminating or harassing members on the basis of sex”.

Mr. Sanderson went on to inform the students that he would be proposing the Motion, and that in his view “the actions of UMSCL that we flagged in University Centre weeks ago would be clearly prohibited under this motion.”

In a letter sent to UMSU’s Board of Directors on November 2, 2018, it is noted that the Motion repeatedly condemns “coercion or attempted coercion with respect to making reproductive choices”.  “Mr. Sanderson’s claim that providing the Postcard to fellow students amounts to coercion is baseless, and quite frankly, irresponsible for a person in his position,” states Justice Centre staff lawyer Marty Moore.

The Justice Centre’s letter states: “By analyzing the Motion and its context, it is apparent that the Motion is a thinly veiled attempt to institute censorship of the expression of views and facts opposed by executives of UMSU.”

The Justice Centre’s letter concludes:

UMSU has a statutory mandate to represent the entirety of the student body at the University of Manitoba and promote their “common interests”. As such, UMSU has a duty to respect the diversity of student opinions, not censor expression based on subjective feelings and executive opinions.

Further, all students pay mandatory fees to the UMSU, and the UMSU provides students with critical services and opportunities integral to student life, learning and growth. UMSU thus has a duty to foster an environment that is conducive to the free exchange of ideas and intellectual diversity at the University of Manitoba.

The UMSU Board of Directors will vote on the Motion during a meeting taking place at 6:00pm on Monday, November 5.