Censorship Backfires Against Creative Activism
Our mission as a club is to transform our campus by reaching everyone with abortion victim photography and a human rights message, in order to make abortion unthinkable at U of T and do our local part to end the killing in Canada. When we engage in this kind of direct action, we have many fruitful, productive and civil conversations with other students from all sorts of backgrounds — but there are also some who want to shut down the debate or hide the evidence of the injustice.
We welcome scrutiny. We are confident in both the high calibre character of all of our team members. We are confident in our methods of peaceful and civil outreach to communicate an awful and inconvenient truth about abortion to our peers, who are intelligent, deserve to know the truth and can handle difficult subjects and challenging discussions at U of T. Our methods are modelled on successful social reform movements of the past and have proven to be by far the most effective way to change hearts on minds on abortion. We know these methods are necessary to spare children’s lives and spare women the trauma of abortion.
We also expect opposition — effective social reformers are rarely popular, and popular social reformers are rarely effective, and many in our culture have been wounded by the trauma of abortion. We are not confronting the campus with an inconvenient truth in order to be popular.
Sometimes, abortion advocates try to cover up the photos, or even resort to violence and other illegal activities to try to stop the photos of abortion victims from being displayed. These attempts to cover up the corpses will not work. Censorship attempts backfire and we work to use them to our advantage to make abortion impossible to ignore on campus. We will continue to route around gatekeepers and would-be censors. And our persistent peaceful efforts will not be slowed down by pro-choice violence.
I’ve written elsewhere about the Streisand Effect and the abortion debate — attempts to censor our message often just draw more attention to it. Part of our objective is to make abortion impossible to ignore on campus, as a necessary step towards reaching everyone in our community. When UTSU or Students for Reproductive Justice attempt to censor the pro-life message, this can help to make abortion impossible to ignore — generating media coverage, and raising the profile of the abortion debate on campus.
Would we rather not deal with censorship? Of course! However, we know that many people do not want the bodies of abortion victims to be seen. It’s hard to say “my body, my choice” when you’re faced with the photographic evidence that abortion destroys the body of another innocent human being. So, we will route around censorship attempts, and leverage them to our advantage. We turn roadblocks into speedbumps.
UTSU’s Arbitrary Denial of Our Club Status Renewal
We never used to run activism at UTSU events. For something like a decade and a half, UTSFL had a good relationship with UTSU. We were treated fairly, like any other club — U of T has a stronger commitment to freedom of expression than most campuses, and is tolerant of a wide variety of views on a wide variety of subjects. We didn’t cause problems for UTSU, and UTSU didn’t cause problems for us.
This changed in the Summer of 2017, when UTSU arbitrarily denied UTSFL club status in a routine renewal application. Nothing had changed in our club activities or application from one year to the next, or for the past couple years for that matter. We appealed the decision, and the UTSU Executive Review Committee sanctioned and penalized the UTSU executives who made the decision. The review committee ruled that the decision was arbitrary and had no basis in UTSU’s policies — we won. However, the Executive Review Committee does not have the power to reverse club status decisions. Though they recommended that the arbitrary decision should be immediately reversed, UTSU simply ignored the recommendation and has continued to refuse to renew UTSFL’s club recognition with UTSU.
Nevermind being treated fairly like other clubs, this year UTSFL was even denied the ability to pay for a table at the Streetfest at the same rate as off-campus, external non-student groups. Many other controversial clubs (did you hear the shouting back and forth about Hong Kong?) and even corporations and off-campus groups had tables, but our student group — a club recognized University of Toronto’s Office of Student Life — was denied access.
Routing Around the Gatekeepers: Circumvention Tactics
This is why we’ve been creative in finding new ways to reach students with the pro-life message during orientation week. While we resent the unjust, arbitrary and likely illegal discrimination that our club has faced from UTSU, in at least one sense, I’d really like to thank them. Before 2017, we stayed away from frosh and orientation week activism at UTSU events because we didn’t want to harm our relationship with UTSU or be too bold. However, once UTSU unilaterally torpedoed that relationship and tried to keep us out… well, there was no reason left for us not to do activism at UTSU events. And without equal access to tabling at Clubs Carnival or Streetfest, we need to be creative to find new ways to reach incoming students.
We run banner at the UTSU Tri-Campus Parade:
We run “Choice” Chain near the Clubs Carnival:
And we’ve had a strong presence at Streetfest for the past three years:
If we’re not allowed inside, we’ll set up at the gates. Quite frankly, while it creates unfair barriers for us to reach other pro-life students, we’ve learned that we can reach thousands of pro-choice students this way rather than dozens as one of many tables.
When UTSU staff, executives and volunteers come out with UTSU property wearing UTSU clothing, and use the power and resources of the student union to even try to suppress our message as we exercise our Charter rights on public property, we make sure the photos are impossible to cover up. If it’s an arms race, we’ll win. If they bring bed sheets, we’ll bring banners. If they bring bigger bed sheets, we’ll bring more and bigger signs
We also have great, productive conversations with some of the counterprotesters, many of whom have not yet thought through the abortion issue. Our “opposition” is not the enemy — abortion is — and the counterprotesters are often more likely than others to have been wounded by experience with abortion.
Regardless of what happens at Streetfest or the parade, our activism at those big events serves only to get the conversation started on campus — it’s our persistent weekly presence on the sidewalks where we reach most students throughout the remainder of the year. Even if none of the photos are visible during orientation week — which is far from the case — censorship raises the profile of the abortion debate on campus, so that when we follow up to engage with students week by week, the conversation about abortion at U of T has already started. No matter what happens, it’s a win-win for our strategy and our strong presence begins a conversation that we work to continue all year long.
We Will Not Be Deterred by Violence
When discrimination and censorship fail, some pro-choicers resort to violence. Last year at Streetfest, someone was arrested for assault with a weapon for attacking our club President, even as he dropped his banner, tried to walk away and peacefully disengage. This year, someone threw an egg at him. Someone else attacked our Past VP this year, grabbing his glasses off his face, popping out the lenses, and throwing the lenses onto Harbord Street. (Who does that? We’re thankful to the counterprotesters who helped him retrieve one of the lenses, despite our obvious disagreement on abortion — that’s the U of T I know.) These are just a tiny fraction of the incidents our club members have faced doing pro-life outreach.
Civil disagreement is welcome, but we have zero tolerance for violence against our team members. One of the counterprotesters asked me at Streetfest why we film during our activism. You’ll notice that we don’t upload videos of conversations or “gotcha” moments — we’re not Rebel Media and that’s not our objective at all. We don’t film for conversations, we film to keep our team safe, and to pursue criminal acts and misconduct to the fullest extent of the law. Our team always remains peaceful in the face of violence, and we never engage in misconduct or criminal activity. That’s also true of the majority of pro-choice students we meet on campus. Unfortunately, there are still many others who resort to violence to try to silence our message. This also backfires because we will not be deterred by violence — the violence we face is nothing compared to the violence that pre-born children face in abortion – and those who engage in violence will face the legal consequences of their actions.
Changing Hearts and Minds is Worth It
While I’m saddened by the violence that my clubmates have faced in our peaceful outreach, I’m also encouraged and inspired by their selflessness and determination to continue to share the pro-life message on campus. It’s not an easy or comfortable thing to do — to present our peers with an inconvenient truth, to face discrimination and censorship attempts, and even to endure violence.
We continue because we know from experience that sharing even a difficult truth in love is worth it, that sharing love even through darkness is so needed in our community, and that the stakes are high. We see people change their minds on abortion all the time, and we see hearts transformed, and we know the lives of pre-born children are at stake and that many more parents will face the trauma of abortion if we don’t reach them.
Attempts to cover up the corpses won’t work. They backfire, ultimately, because the truth is more powerful than lies. A photo of a child’s body, broken by abortion, is more powerful than empty slogans like “my body, my choice.” And even when the student union brings its power and resources down on a student club to try to silence our message or keep us out, we will find a way to bring the truth back in. Human rights are for all human beings, and the injustice of abortion will be exposed.