BY TYLER CHOI
Over the past week, the Sheridan College community made their voices heard following a visit by a provocative anti-abortion activism group, which staged a protest at Trafalgar Campus on Sept. 15. The group displayed graphic signs with visuals of bloody fetuses and challenged students for their views on abortion. For two days, Sheridan staff and students engaged in heated discussion over the organization, which in the words of Sheridan College President Jeff Zabudsky, “. . . has caught us by storm and off guard.”
At a town hall in the J102 lecture hall, Zabudsky responded to concerns and to clarify the situation.
The crowd of more than 60 people questioned the legitimacy and legality of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR). “We have very little right under our interpretation to stand in their way.” Zabudsky explained.
He added that as Crown land, protests are allowed in public buildings – of which Sheridan’s campuses qualify – if protests do not infringe on public safety, or private areas like classrooms.
“We have to take a measured response to the matter, as we may break the law.”
Zabudsky addressed objections that Sheridan’s academic freedom was at stake, saying Sheridan’s commitment to academic freedom remained the same, but hate speech was not tolerated. The CCBR’s material is not deemed as hate speech he added.
He said that as the first Ontario institution of higher learning visited by the CCBR, he received support from universities and colleges, and from as far as Calgary praising the college’s response.
On Sept. 21, an open forum hosted by the Sheridan Student Union the floodgates opened for many students to speak out on the matter. Students took to the mic and expressed a mix of outrage, indignation and issued a call for a counter-protest.
Christine Szustaczek, director of the college’s Corporate Communications and External Relations department, acted as moderator.
“As an agency of the Crown, we cannot deny their right to express themselves,” Szustaczek said. She added that Sheridan acted with the information on hand at the time, and “our approach is to work with the system on this,” answering objections from some who claimed a response was delayed. Szustaczek said the college’s actions on the whole were appreciated, with many stating Sheridan’s respect of free speech particularly noteworthy.
Students took the pulpit as an opportunity to demand action. The SSU has promoted a social media hashtag, “#OurSpace” to allow students a voice on the matter. One student asked for a promotion of debates and discussions, not protests, while others recommended a counter-protest by blocking their signs. Calls for a pro-choice student group were brought up, and a form was circulated to collect names created for such a purpose.
Chun Lee, an Interactive Design student, participated in the event to hear all sides about the issue. Though he is on the fence regarding abortion, “I’m all for expressing their views, but not at a hallway or classroom. Maybe at a bus stop or anywhere public.”
Lee said Sheridan’s reaction was to be commended, as it was quick and receptive to the questions of students and staff.
“I felt Sheridan dealt well with the issue,” he said. “They discussed the legal situation well, what they are trying to do, and what they can’t.”