Bylaw going too far to stop legal protest

Published on August 15, 2014

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is the famous maxim of French philosopher Voltaire. It is a ringing endorsement of free speech, the cornerstone of any democracy. It’s a simple leap to modify that maxim to defend the rights of anyone to pass out literature or buy advertising supporting a certain point of view as long as its fair comment.

Last week, the anti-abortion group Show the Truth was in the province protesting a conference at UPEI called Abortion: The Unfinished Revolution. The group passed out graphic images of aborted fetuses or held up placards with those same images at various locations around the conference site. The images were shocking and repulsive.

No one denied they were not what they purported to be. They repulsed many Islanders and an online petition calling for the city to enact a bylaw to prevent the display of such graphic images soon had over 600 names. What offended most people was passing out the images to young children who were shocked and disturbed. It left adults and parents angry that children were subjected to such horror. Protestors hurt their cause more then helped it with their antics last week.

Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee didn’t like them and might have proceeded with a bylaw but he now realizes there’s nothing the city can do to stop the display of graphic images from any group. The city stopped because legal opinion said such a bylaw would violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Protestors have always used shocking images to support their viewpoint. Anti-sealing opponents used disturbing photos and videos of the slaughter of baby white coats for years to sway public opinion. The hunt for baby seals has been outlawed but protesters still trot out those cute photos to attract donations.

Anti-smoking campaigns hit a raw nerve by showing black lungs, people smoking through a hole in their throat and patients with emphysema packed into a tiny hospital room for that last smoke.

So why should it be a surprise that anti-abortion advocates would resort to such tactics. It attracted attention and the conference, which might have come and gone without much fanfare, suddenly was thrust into the media spotlight.

People might not have accepted the holocaust, refusing to believe that mankind was capable of genocide, until survivors told their stories of horror, and images of the death camps were displayed to a shocked world.

Sometimes we don't want to know the truth and we choose to deliberately ignore it. We may not agree with the message and how it was presented but to start talking about bylaws and suppression of peaceful protest is starting down a very slippery slope. Remember that the only violence last week occurred when a man opposed to the anti-abortion groups caused an incident.

There was some criticism of the conference because it only supported the pro-abortion viewpoint and offered no balance. Well, that was the theme of the conference. When anti-abortionists hold a conference or protest, they certainly don’t include pro-choice speakers or differing views.

The issue now centres on reproductive justice but the reality is that a fetus dies during an abortion and even the Supreme Court in its landmark ruling suggested the rights of the unborn also need protection.

Polls say a majority of Canadians believe the issue is a personal one between a woman and her doctor and it’s no one else’s business. We may not agree with either side but we should be prepared to accept protest.

Supreme Court justices cited the charter of rights and freedoms as they ruled Canada’s criminal abortion law unconstitutional because it infringed on the rights of women. The same charter guarantees the right of citizens to protest that decision. Without the charter we would be in a real mess.