'Unplanned' screening at Saint John High School draws ire of abortion rights groups

SAINT JOHN, N.B. — A screening of the controversial American anti-abortion film "Unplanned" scheduled for Friday evening at Saint John High School in New Brunswick has stirred up debate about the use of public spaces as a forum for contentious subject matter.

Saint John Coun. David Hickey and the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada were among those who voiced opposition to the screening booked for the school's theatre, arguing it's inappropriate to show such a film in a public institution funded by the government. 

Hickey was among those who planned to join a peaceful protest of the event, organized via a Facebook group which stated "a public school is not the place for such dishonest, dangerous, political, and religious propaganda."

The Anglophone South School District (ASD-S) said the screening was not organized by the school but by the Saint John chapter of New Brunswick Right to Life, which booked the venue and sold the event tickets.

New Brunswick Right to Life did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

"Unplanned" hit theatres in Canada in July and has drawn impassioned reactions on both sides of the issue with its look at a Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas who becomes an anti-abortion speaker. Opponents of the film have argued it contains falsehoods and demonizes abortion providers, while supporters argue audiences can choose whether or not to see it.

"I'm disappointed that New Brunswick Right to Life would think it's appropriate to air something like this in a public institution like a school, and I'm disappointed that the school district hasn't stepped up and done anything about it," Hickey said Friday in a phone interview.

Saint John High School is located in a "top-priority neighbourhood," Hickey said.

"It's the neighbourhood I represent as a city councillor. We have the highest rate of teen pregnancy, we have the highest rate of child poverty, and we have the highest rate of one-parent families (in Saint John). As we all know, unplanned pregnancy disproportionately affects women and girls living in poverty.

"I think by enabling something like this to happen in a public institution, we're putting a target on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our community."

The ASD-S said the screening didn't conflict with its policies regarding the community use of its schools.

The policies, which are recognized and promoted by ASD-S and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, state: "If the use of school premises/facilities does not interfere with the normal operations of the school and pupil safety, our facilities are made available to meet community needs."

"We understand that this is a sensitive topic for many and wish to make clear that the rental of our facilities to a group does not equate an endorsement, sponsorship, or promotion of that group or their event," ASD-S Supt. Zoe Watson said in an emailed statement.

"This is true of our rentals to church groups, political parties, and other community groups. Our schools are made available for rent to the community without partiality to (lawful) ideology or beliefs. Likewise, as a rental contract for our facilities does not constitute a partnership or endorsement, we do not require rental groups to reflect our curriculum."

Watson also noted the screening of "Unplanned" "is not being shown during school hours to students and is in no way affiliated" with their school and district.

Hickey, who sent a letter to Watson Wednesday expressing his dismay with the screening, suggested the school district's policies be updated.

"Obviously their policy is not comprehensive enough to include the safety for the folks in the community," he said.

The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada also questioned the school district's policies.

"How can a rental like this meet that policy? Would they rent to anyone? Would they rent to ... a neo-Nazi group? Is the sky the limit? Where do they draw the line?" Joyce Arthur, executive director of the ARCC-CDAC in Vancouver, said Friday by phone.

"Public schools are funded by the government, and so as a government-funded entity, they are supposed to be abiding by Canadian laws, upholding human rights and charter rights, respecting those laws and charter rights," Arthur said. "So for them to host a group, a movie that's basically challenging human rights and that could be seen as hate propaganda, is just inappropriate."

However, a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association was in favour of the screening going ahead provided the contents of the film didn't violate the Criminal Code.

"Obviously there's reasons to be concerned about expression that in some cases seems to be linked to acts of violence (but) I still take the position that we're better off allowing expression to happen and countering it rather than trying to shut it down," said Cara Zwibel, director of the CCLA's fundamental freedoms program.

"It's actually a perfect example of free speech in action: They should be entitled to rent that space and screen the film, and protesters who wish to protest outside should be entitled to do that. That's the give-and-take of free speech and that's promoting debate and discussion, which is what we're supposed to be doing."

"Unplanned" is distributed in Canada by Fredericton-based Cinedicom, which is run by BJ McKelvie, who is also a pastor.

— By Victoria Ahearn, with files from Cassandra Szklarski, in Toronto

The Canadian Press