The University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) voted last week to revoke the club status of Youth Protecting Youth (YPY), a pro-life group on campus.  The move caps a stormy series of events between the UVSS and YPY.  In October 2008, the UVSS denied club funding for YPY but maintained its status as a club.  This decision was repeated in the fall of 2009, and activism surrounding abortion at UVIC reached a peak in October 2009 with a well-attended public debate on campus.  Erin Millar at Maclean’s has recent coverage here and some older coverage see here

The dispute between the UVSS and YPY has cast a wider scope of interest with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) throwing its hat into the ring in favour of YPY, condemning the UVSS’ conduct.

The UVSS’ position appears to be based on its powers under Part E (Discipline) and Part F (Harassment) of Part III of the Board of Directors Policy Manual.  Anyone who feels that a student club has engaged in harassment can complain to the Clubs Council committee of the UVSS.  The Clubs Council investigates and reports to the UVSS board of directors, which is entitled to discipline the club by taking certain measures, including denying funding or revoking club status.  The UVSS has stated that in this case it is responding to such a complaint in relation to YPY.

The problem is, according to the BCCLA, that it appears the decision was taken as a result of the premise behind YPY rather than particular conduct (i.e. what it is rather than what it does).  This, simply put, is anti-democratic.  Now, as Erin Millar suggests, the battle might shift to the courtroom.

The UVSS’ decision raises two interesting questions:

  1. what is the role of the university – UVIC – in all this; and
  2. how will the dispute likely get resolved if it did go to court?

First, despite the obvious connections, there probably isn’t much of a legal relationship between this decision and any claim by the students in YPY that UVIC has done something wrong or should do something different now.  In general, student unions are societies independent from the universities on which they operate (see here as an example).  The members of each society – namely, students at a particular university – contribute fees to provide funding, part of which is allocated to various student clubs.  When the powers that be within the society determine a certain club has been acting out of line, they have the discretion to turn off the tap. 

Politically, as well, it is generally unwise for a university to wade into a dispute between student groups unless unrest is involved.  UVIC probably doesn’t want to touch this one with an opening ceremony length torch. 

Second, the preliminary hurdle here is whether the dispute will make it to court.  Law is expensive.  Money is something many students and campus groups don’t have.  But if this dispute did get before a judge, the decision would depend largely on the type of claim launched by YPY (or BCCLA).  One the one hand, they may claim that the UVSS’ decision was inconsistent with the Society Act (British Columbia), which governs societies.  On the other hand, they may launch a complaint under the Human Rights Code (British Columbia) before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging the UVSS’ course of action constituted discrimination.  If that happens, both sides will likely look at Gray v. UBC Students’ Union, where the court rejected the claim of a pro-abortion group that it had suffered discrimination on the basis of religion.  The court there found that the student group had been shut down because of its offensive conduct and nothing else (but see also this decision).  As well, a court might insist first that YPY exhaust any dispute resolution mechanism available within the UVSS or UVIC before approaching a judge.

Time will tell.

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