Canada’s universities, once a place where you would expect to see radical young minds challenging the status quo, are now “abysmal” in protecting the right to free speech, according to a report from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. The Alberta-based organization released its 2012 Campus Freedom Index, which examined the state of policies and actions governing free speech across 35 Canadian universities.
The results paint a dismal picture. Each university survey had its administration and student union scored on both their policies towards free speech, and their actions and practices. Eleven of the university administrations received an ‘F’ in at least one category, as did four student unions.
“The results confirm what many observers have long known,” Michael Kennedy, co-author of the study, said. “Higher education in Canada has failed its duty of fostering free inquiry, critical reflection, honest debate and pursuit of truth.“
John Carpay, the other author of the study and president of JCCF, explained Canadian universities have lost sight of the goal of the right to free expression. He said there was too high of an emphasis on social harmony in many universities.
“Universities don’t like to admit to censorship, so they raise safety and security and making people feel welcome […], but it doesn’t change the facts,” Carpay said. “It says that if you have an unpopular belief, you don’t have the same right to express that belief as other groups do.”
“You cannot have freedom of speech and the right to not be offended,” Carpay said. “The moment I have a right to not be offended, that’s the moment that everybody else has lost their freedom of speech.”
Carpay said universities across Canada had failed in their obligations to prospective students, to whom they promised, via their mission statements, not to censor expression on campus.
“Any university that censors speech, totally or partially, is breaking its contractual obligations,” Carpay said. “Western, like other universities, makes promises to prospective students that they will have free speech rights on campus, and as such they are bound by contract.”
According to the report, Western has broken that contract.
The university administration received a passing grade for its policies, but failed in the actions and practices category—the University Students’ Council did even worse, failing in both.
The administration was criticized for not allowing Western Lifeline, a pro-life club, to host certain events on campus, a claim that was rejected by the university. Keith Marnoch, director of media and community relations for Western, said that incident fell under the purview of the USC.
“Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy, and it’s integral to the teaching and research mission at Western, even when those ideas are unpopular and uncomfortable,” Marnoch said. “We believe the right to free speech cannot impede the right of any member of Western to study, work and conduct their activities in a safe environment.”
Carpay admitted there might have been confusion in the report about the responsibility. However, he also said the university had failed to actively protect free speech, as opposed to passively allowing it.
As an example, he cited the report’s criticism of the administration’s handling of a protest last year, when members of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights disrupted Israeli Culture Day, hosted by Israel on Campus.
According to the report, campus police “was called to monitor the event, but did not stop the physical obstruction of the display,” and that the administration “is responsible for campus security’s failure.”
“When the university refuses to uphold free speech rights by letting a small mob physically disrupt an event, that deserves a failing grade,” Carpay said. Marnoch said the administration’s actions were in keeping with the university’s stance on free expression.
Oddly, the USC received criticism for disciplining SPHR for this event, which Carpay said was mistaken and applauded their actions. The organization was also disparaged for not allowing Western Lifeline to hold an event in the University Community Centre.
The USC said only that they “are always open to input on our policies and procedures, and continually work with students to ensure best practices.” They declined to comment further.
“I disagree that we’re allowing views to come forward. If people are looking for confrontations to take place, we would view that safety needs to be considered,” Marnoch said. He also criticized the study, which is done every year, for citing examples that were from more than a year ago.
“We have a mission laid down with regards to this,” he explained. “I think there are opportunities for people to put forward ideas on it, and we’re open to that, but we try to stand clearly with regards to allowing free speech.”