Posts tagged student unions
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.
A surprising number of legal battles grow out of steps taken by a student union against student groups that they disagree with or disapprove of. Most recently, the unpopular flavour of the day is pro-life groups (see here). Is a student union required to grant club status (usually involving special entitlements to funding, space, etc.) to any group of students with a common campus purpose?
Who do we accept and who do we reject? Illegal purposes or aims are definitely out of the question – a neo-nazi student awareness club, for example, might be easy to reject if laws against hate speech and/or violence would most likely be broken as a result. But it gets more difficult to draw the line. Consider any political or social issue on which the student body might be divided or substantial minorities might exist (e.g. the Arab-Israeli conflict). And how should pluralism be valued? Should the fact that a certain number of students hold a view (that you may find objectionable) make it worthy of being the focus of a club?
My own experience as a student activist taught me alot about this issue, and I was frustrated as a student watching my student union fail to properly articulate a clear justification for who was in and who was out (or, on a related topic, who should get more funding and who should get less). Mark Mercer, chair of the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, has an interesting opinion in University Affairs, arguing that the “safe” approach of denying club status where the perspective of the group may offend many people is a form of anti-intellectualism. Agree with it or not, I’m happy to see someone take a strong, clear position on a political question that has produced severe legal consequences on campuses.
One note of caution, though, on Mercer’s comments on dealing with “anti-intellectual” student governments. It is generally fairly difficult for a university administration to waive away or “dissolve” a student union, given that student unions are generally incorporated non-profit societies. They have a legal status independent of the university. And their members are the students and not the university itself. Finally, they often have contracts with the universities, which the universities may not be able to walk away from. This isn’t to say that universities have their hands tied; it just means they’ll have to work hard to deal with the challenge.