New report critical of universities’, student unions’ commitment to free speech
Modern universities are founded, in part, on the basic principle of academic freedom. To benefit society our academics must be free to pursue any line of thought or inquiry, no matter how offensive it might seem to politicians, religious groups, business interests or anyone else, and no matter how meshuga it might sound to the average person on the street. Free expression is a moral imperative and a political necessity. It is vital to our survival as a democratic civilization. Nowhere is it’s presence and growth more important than on university campuses.
Free expression at universities does not only mean the unrestrained ability of professors to zig or zag left or right in classes on political theory. Course time is a small part of it. Free expression also covers the rest of the community of ideas living and breathing on campuses, from signs at student-organized protests to letters to the editor of student newspapers.
Like any other principle, it begs the question: what’s the status quo? How does free expression actually fare at Canadian universities?
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms released a report last week involving a critical analysis of the state of free speech at Canadian universities. As a brief bit of background, here is a glimpse of the JCCF’s approach from the group’s website:
The free and democratic society which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms holds out as our ideal can only be fulfilled by honouring and preserving Canada’s traditions of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, other individual rights, constitutionally limited government, the equality of all citizens before the law, and the rule of law.
And yet these core principles of freedom and equality continue to be eroded by governments and by government-funded and government-created entities like Canada’s public universities, and human rights commissions at the federal and provincial levels.
The JCCF is a charity intent on promoting individual liberties, such as free expression, by promoting discourse on the subject and providing pro bono legal representation to Canadians who cannot otherwise afford legal costs associated with defending their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Department of Justice). The JCCF’s political bent is obvious, but the group doesn’t pretend to be a politically neutral think tank, and reports like these – whether they are from the Fraser Institute or the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – should be respected or dismissed on their own merits. The same goes for the fact that one of the report’s authors, John Carpay, represents anti-abortion student activists.
Here are some highlights from the report:
- The report sets out a “Campus Freedom Index” based on the policies and principles of universities and student unions (what they say) and on the actions and practices of universities and student unions (what they do). For example, a ”Good” rating on a university’s policies and principles means that the university has a clear and unequivocal commitment to free expression. A university with strong limits on free expression in its policies and principles, such as restrictions against “disrespectful” or “provocative” speakers or perspectives, get a “Poor” rating.
- The Index views favourably universities and student unions that share their respective resources, such as student union funding, equally among groups promoting various perspectives on political and social issues.
- Carleton University is criticized for its approach to anti-abortion student activists (see here). The University of Calgary is criticized for its approach to the Pridgen brothers (see here). The University of Ottawa is criticized for how it handled Ann Coulter’s Canadian tour (Globe and Mail). The best scores went to Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of New Brunswick.
Interestingly, the report denounces universities and student unions for actions or omissions taken against groups trying to advocate what are commonly thought of as left-wing views. For example, the authors were disappointed by the decision of Dalhousie University to cancel a speaking engagement with British MP George Galloway because the event’s organizers were unable to pay for extra security.
This report should be considered by anyone looking for a primer on free speech on campus.