City of Edmonton shuts down pro-life group’s plans for the second time

Edmonton must treat groups that dissent from popular opinions with the same respect and rights to tax-funded spaces as those with popular opinions.

Barbara Kay Montreal QC

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), on whose board I sit, offers pro bono legal services to individuals or groups whose Charter rights the JCCF agrees have been breached. They have announced that they are filing a court application on behalf of the Alberta March for Life (AMLA) and its vice-chair, Jerry Pasternak, “against the City of Edmonton for its decision to cancel a scheduled lighting of the 60,000 LED-lit High Level Bridge in colours chosen by AMLA.”

First, some background on the lighting-up history of the High Level Bridge and the reasoning behind this application.

Edmonton conceived its “Light the Bridge” program with the objective of  helping to “recognize major events and cultural celebrations.” Its stated aim is “to reflect the diversity of people who call Edmonton home and our connection to the global community.” The bridge has been lit, in a variety of colours, for such causes/events as Melanoma Awareness, Disability Employment Awareness Month, Rosh Hashana, the Edmonton Oilers Home Opener and Wrongful Conviction Day.

The stated criteria include: events of national or international significance; local events that positively impact community spirit; national or international issues that build community “such as Treaty 6 Recognition Day or End Bullying Pink Shirt Day or World Cancer Day.” The city “reserves the right to deny requests that do not merit public support or are mainly personal, private, political, polarizing or commercial in nature.” (emphasis mine)

This is the second time Edmonton has cancelled a pro-life group’s scheduled bridge-lighting on the grounds that it was “polarizing,” as per its criteria caveats. In May 2017 AMLA received permission to celebrate a March for Life via the bridge, lit up in pink and blue, but was cancelled. The JCCF observes that the city does not offer any precise definition of what “polarizing” means, and furthermore:

“The City of Edmonton is home to a diverse population with a wide variety of views, values and beliefs including, unsurprisingly, persons who express pro-life views. As a government that is constitutionally obligated to be neutral regarding the expression of its citizens, it is not the proper role of the city to elevate and promote the favoured ideological causes of some citizens to the exclusion of the lawful views of others,” stated Justice Centre staff lawyer James Kitchen in a JCCF press release.

In the lawsuit, the JCCF will argue that Edmonton is offering state property to the public to utilize for expression, and can therefore only limit expression in a justified manner. Obviously hate speech, or overt racism or obscenity would run counter to the values and purposes underlying freedom of speech. But, they argue, expression of a pro-life opinion is none of these things, nor can it be considered any more “political” or “polarizing” than other causes for which the bridge has been lit.

According to the JCCF, the arbitrary decision is procedurally deficient in that neither notice of cancellation nor opportunity to respond was provided. The lawsuit requests that the City only light the bridge “without political or ideological favouritism” or in “neutral colours” (perhaps blue and gold, the province’s colours), as well as a declaration that the cancellation was unjust.

Edmonton naturally set out with the best of intentions in planning the Lights program. However, when they wrote the words “personal, private, political, polarizing,” did their committee members actually have a discussion about what the words meant, or wonder if their own assumptions about “political” and “polarizing” were the gold standard of settled opinion? Did they ask themselves whether polarizing meant the same thing as, say, “opposition” of opinion?

Perhaps they had in mind anything that might give offence to certain groups. One might easily deduce this since in our current era pro-life groups are often held up to ridicule and contempt without consequence, because pro-abortion is treated by most politicians and virtually all members of our cultural elite as the default opinion of all civilized and enlightened people.

And yet the offence is purely ideological. Those who do believe in the sanctity of human life from conception are not promoting violence, or actively preventing anyone from having an abortion. They seek to persuade fellow citizens to their belief, but the freedom to attempt to persuade others is the basis of democracy. The judgment that it is “polarizing” has not come down from some objective, disinterested court. It is a subjective judgment that has come down from activists and ideologues whose opinions our progressive elites defer to. How is it the city’s business to privilege one ideology over another?

One could argue that the city has grounds for rejecting the light display because of its “community-building” criterion. It is true that any and all pro-life displays cause social tension. But one could say the same for Pride, which in recent years has become extremely politicized, and which contains indecent presentation and performance that offend many people, especially parents of young children. But since LGBT feelings are routinely privileged in our institutions of education and governance over the feelings of those who find elements of the Pride brand off-putting, the city apparently does not find Pride polarizing at all, only “community-building.”

Likewise, the bridge is open to a request for the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes movement, which raises consciousness for violence against women, an important cause to be sure. But would it be open to, say, Male Victims of Intimate Partner Violence Awareness Week? The statistics on male victimhood within relationships are (I know, hard to believe, but true) almost equal to female victimhood, but I am guessing that any attempt to use the Bridge to raise awareness of that fact would be considered “polarizing.”

It may be that pro-life displays are not community-building, but that is not their fault. Pro-lifers are always willing to engage in civil dialogue with pro-abortionists, and civil engagement is the most fundamental community-building exercise (remember Norman Rockwell’s famous painting?). But those who consider pro-abortion the only admissible position in public life do not usually willingly engage with pro-lifers. Yet in the present cultural climate, their intransigence, their insistence that there can be only one correct opinion on this subject is not considered polarizing, while the opinion that the subject should be up for debate is considered polarizing, a faulty and undemocratic assumption that the City of Edmonton has demonstrated in their cancellation.

If the city cannot exercise ideological neutrality in its assignment of the Lights, then it should get out of the ideas and “rights” business altogether. Governments, after all, have no obligation to promote “causes” at all. Edmonton could reserve the Lights for a narrow swath of indisputably community-building communication, such as support for the city’s sports teams, physical-disease awareness weeks/months, national holidays and other apple-pie messaging.

But if they wish to go beyond those parameters and offer a podium for philosophical positions or ideals, then they have an obligation to treat groups that dissent from popular opinions with the same respect and rights to that tax-funded space as those with popular opinions.

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