The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, a non-profit promoting academic freedom on Canadian campuses, has spoken out against Western administration's reaction to the "Western Lives Matter" incident and have prompted a response from University President Amit Chakma.
On the Oct. 1, 'original' Homecoming weekend, some Western students posed with a banner stating "Western Lives Matter."
Jana Luker, Western's associate vice-president student experience, sent out a letter speaking against the banner, calling the signage racist and contrary to the university's values.
Excerpts from the letter sent by SAFS on Oct. 5 and addressed to President Chakma state:
- "Western’s student code of conduct covers such matters as disrupting classes, threatening people or putting people at risk of harm, and harassment. There is nothing in the newspaper report that remotely suggests that the students posing with the banner engaged in any behaviour that fits these categories."
- "In investigating the incident of the banner and the photos, Western would essentially be investigating students for having and expressing an opinion or for trying to have fun."
- "In our opinion, universities should not be seeking to protect social movements from criticism or satire. Universities should, rather, be places at which opinions can be openly expressed and discussed. A student’s opinion should not have to fall in line with the views of university."
In the conclusion of the letter, SAFS asked for assurance that the students who made the banner will not be investigated.
Jana Luker, associate vice-president student experience, said the incident was being investigated by Campus Police and she could not comment about specifics of the case.
The incident was not deemed a hate crime by London Police Services, according to Luker.
In an interview, SAFS president, Mark Mercer — who authored the letter — said he was inspired to speak out about the issue as the organization's purpose is to defend academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses.
"I can't see how it [the student code of conduct] was violated in any way at all," Mercer said. "It certainly can't rule out ridicule, satire, protest, whatever the students with the banner thought themselves to be doing."
In the letter Mercer noted that Western's code of conduct states: “Nothing in this Code shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, lawful picketing, or to inhibit free speech as guaranteed by law."
Mercer said he isn't sure if the university should ever limit freedom of expression. He said Western could have organized an academic discussion on the nature of ridiculing the Black Lives Matter movement, but shouldn't be punishing the students as punishment provides no educational purpose.
The letter received a response letter from Chakma who cited specific sections of the Student Code of Conduct. Section 4 states, "The University encourages students to set for themselves the highest standards of behaviour offcampus, including behaviour conducive to the peaceful and safe enjoyment of housing by both students and neighbours."
"In light of these considerations, our administration initiated an investigation when members of the community brought complaints to our attention about the nature of the message printed on the banner (i.e., its apparent trivialization of the “Black Lives Matter” movement) and the fact that an image of the banner was being disseminated via social media," Chakma said.
Mercer responded and sent another letter to Chakma. In this letter, Mercer cited the administration's agreement with Western's Faculty Association which states: “Furthermore, universities are communities in which the right to criticize all aspects of society is valued and respected.” Mercer said these rights should also apply to students as well.
Mercer further said that even if the students are not sanctioned, the investigation warns students and professors that Western isn't a place where free speech is permitted.
"A university shouldn't be a place where we have to be careful not to say things that the administrator's don't approve of," Mercer said in the interview. "University people should be responding with criticism, not with threats."
Luker said if Campus Police does determines a violation occurred, then the sanctions could range from nothing to academic expulsion.
“My concern is that students may need support and that they are offended and disrespected by the banner," Luker said in an interview. "That’s what my real focus is."