Hours after pro-life demonstrations began last Wednesday March 9, a sign belonging to UBC Lifeline was destroyed by an individual wielding a pocket knife.
“Fairly early on, things got a little bit heated down there and someone stepped forward with a knife and slashed one of the pro-life group’s signs,” explained Barry Eccleton, director of UBC Campus Security.
The individual is described as being a blonde female of average height.
“I asked her what she thought about abortion and she proceeded to pull out a small pocket knife of sorts [and] rushed towards the sign. She took two swipes at the sign, cutting one of our display signs and then ran away into Buch A building … She didn’t draw any attention to herself, she didn’t scream or yell that she was about to do it,” said Cameron Côté, advocacy and outreach director of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBBR) — an anti-abortion advocacy group based in Calgary — and witness to the incident.
“A little while after this incident, a male student came by and pushed down our signs, and someone else spray painted the words ‘her choice’ on the sidewalk,” said Anastasia Pearse, an anti-abortion activist who said she felt shocked and vulnerable.
Neither Côté or Pearse are UBC students. Both were there in a support capacity for the UBC Lifeline club as representatives of anti-abortion advocacy groups.
This is not the first time CBBR and UBC Lifeline have been affected by violent response. In 1999, three members of UBC’s Students for Choice club were charged with assault and property damage after “overturning tables, ripping signs and other materials, and destroying photographs.”
Incidents such as these raise questions of how the university can better manage tense protests and respond to individuals who resort to violence. The issue puts Campus Security in a particularly difficult position, forced between their duty to support freedom of speech and concerns that potential responses could be criticized as heavy-handed.
Despite this, Côté is optimistic in his opinions of Campus Security. While frustrated with the events that transpired — particularly the individual’s choice to resort to destructive means — Côté believes Campus Security did a good job of “maintaining the peace and also being willing to work with [them].”
“I would hope that, in the future, the counter-protesters will be asked to stay behind their cones from the very beginning,” said Côté.
Issues regarding the potential banning of the group from campus continually test the limits of freedom of expression and the question of whether or not these rights extend to university campuses. Pro-choice activists have been critical of UBC Lifeline’s right to protest, arguing that the group’s message constitutes hate speech and that the images involved in the Genocide Awareness Project may be threatening to some students.
“I think that very few people understand just how high a bar criminal hate speech is,” explains lawyer and BC Civil Liberties Association Policy Director Micheal Vonn. “Because you don’t like what someone says, [that] is very, very far from the standard of what constitutes hate speech. We would look to the university for leadership on this, to be very direct in terms of what they expect in terms of tolerance of views that are not their own.”
For the time being, the investigation into the incident is ongoing as CBBR may provide video evidence of the slashing to the relevant authorities. “We would like to know who did that because it wasn’t appropriate at all,” stated Eccleton. “I know the police would be interested in getting hold of the footage to have a look and see if they can identify and speak to this person because that was a criminal act.”
Vonn similarly condemned the attack, arguing that “going after someone’s display with a knife ... is behaviour that should not be tolerated.”