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The Risks of Speaking Freely

It was a miserable rainy day and we’d been watching AMVs in the Pride Lounge when a member of the Women’s Centre approached us. A graphic display was decorating a main beat on campus (Main Mall just off Wyman Plaza) featuring photos of bloody fetuses, lynchings and mass murder. The posters belonged to the Genocide Awareness Project, of the Canadian Centre of Bio-ethical Reform (CCBR: an advocacy group based in Calgary and endorsed by Lifeline, an AMS pro-life club. Members of the CCBR not associated with UBC were on-campus and participating). The Women’s Centre was organizing a counter-protest, and wondered if the Pride Collective would like to join them.

Several of us were feeling either under the weather or too emotionally drained to participate, but others jumped up eagerly, running to oversee the sign-making process. As we took down some of the large pride flags that decorate the lounge, we were warned about how large and loud the crowd had gotten. Not even a Women’s Centre representative with a megaphone could drown out the arguments breaking out amongst spectators. I was nervous about my first foray into public activism, especially since it involved being openly out of the closet, but once people saw the flags there was a bout of applause. We held them so as to cover the gory imagery (not having permission to touch the posters, but allowed to stand in front and obscure them).

The weather did not improve, with cold rain and winds that destroyed my umbrella. We stood for hours, rotating as necessary for those who needed to attend class. There was no lack of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice tension, but strangely enough the main topic of debate wasn’t about abortion itself: It was about free speech, and when it was necessary to consider censorship.

“Comparing a woman’s right over her own body to genocide is hate speech, The Women’s Centre rep declared. “And to do this at UBC, a land with colonial history, is disrespectful to First Nations peoples.”

“Those posters are anti-semitic!” A middle-aged woman said angrily to one of the Pro-Life members. “You are assaulting me with these images.”

The Genocide Awareness Project also infamously once held a display with photographs from the Holocaust in front of Hillel House, a Jewish student organization.

We gradually acquired permission to properly conceal more and more of said images, notably those that depicted the Holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields, until only two stands remained. The petition from the Women’s Centre to ban such graphic imagery continued to amass signatures until eventually the hour came for CCBR and Lifeline to pack up for the day. 

After we returned to the Pride Lounge and had a good chortle over the Ubyssey’s opinion piece on the topic, we got to talking.

“I don’t feel like they should have to leave,” said one member, “Those pictures were just out of line.”

“I don’t think non-students have the right to protest here, no matter what their message,” another said.

In the online forums, general consensus was the same: Having a pro-life display was fine, but the way the CCBR went about it – from capitalizing on the suffering of racial minorities, to exposing students to gore without consent or even warning – was not. Many wrote it off as an unimpressive and vulgar display that played into the pro-life stereotype of ignorance and tastelessness, but agreed it was still a person’s right to be all those things. Students actually supported a pro-life club’s right to publicly voice themselves, but somewhere a line had been crossed that had nothing to do with abortion.

A 2014 appeal from the UBC Women’s Centre said, “We respect all opinions regarding abortion, and as a group we take no specific stance in the debate. However, we are unable to accept the university’s allowance of Genocide Awareness Project displays because of their potential to traumatize and harm our peers…We are asking for the banning of graphics used in this display, [and] not asking to prohibit the opinions, voices, or bodies which promote these images.

It can be difficult to arrest this event from the abortion debate, but the brunt of backlash was largely for unsolicited gore in a public space, along with implicitly racist sentiments. Whether it legally qualifies as hate speech is beyond me to say. As an American, I’m all for freedom of expression, but I also know that when you speak too freely and without due consideration, you can say some darn stupid things to the great detriment of your intended message

The UBC Women’s Centre is a Resource Group you can visit, and read their 2014 public letter regarding GAP’s presence at UBC here.

Graffiti near the site of the display.

Lover of horror films and chubby cats, Sarah is an American third-year English and Psychology student at UBC. When not writing, her pastimes include reading, knitting, selling her soul to Nintendo and ghosting Masters Psychology classes.
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