New report documents university freedom
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) released a report on the state of freedom at universities across the country and found that many fail to promote and protect free speech, especially when it comes to the rights of pro-life groups on campus.
The JCCF’s 2011 Campus Freedom Index rated 18 public universities and their student unions in terms of their commitment to upholding the rights of students to express their beliefs and opinions.
The report included examination of the policies and principles (“what they say”) and the actions and practices (“what they do”) of both university administrations and student unions. It said that support for free speech must “not be qualified, or contradicted by, a ban on speech” considered “‘discriminatory,’ ‘offensive,’ ‘hurtful,’ provocative,’ ‘disrespectful,’ ‘insulting,’ or ‘divisive’.”
Furthermore, student access to public space could be denied based on their views. It even examined whether universities add “security fee policies” which “penalize controversial expression by charging tuition-paying students extra money to secure their basic right to be protected from violence and from other criminal conduct” because of the content of a presentation.
No university was rated “good” in all four categories: university policies and principles, university actions and practices, student union policies and principles, and student union actions and practices.
The report, written by JCCF president John Carpay and Michael M. Kennedy of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, gives the best marks to the University of New Brunswick, the University of British Columbia, and Simon Fraser University.
The three worst were Carleton University, the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Calgary, with all three rating “poor” in administration actions and student union principles and actions.
The report found that most campus censorship was focused on university pro-life clubs, which have repeatedly been denied club status by student unions, denied the right to space to hold symposiums and show displays, and have been subjected to regulations regarding their pro-life activities that are not demanded of other students’ clubs. Carleton and Calgary have been notorious in the heavy-handed dealings with pro-life students on campus.
The report notes that Carleton “denies equal access to university resources and facilities to a campus pro-life club (Carlton Lifeline)” and that it “charged four of its own students with ‘tresspassing’ for attempting to express their views on campus.” (The charges were later stayed by the Crown because they were without merit.) Furthermore, the university condoned “criminal conduct perpetrated against Carleton Lifeline members in the peaceful expression of an opinion on campus.”
The report notes that the University of Calgary “imposed restrictions on Campus Pro-Life that are not imposed on any other campus club” during their visual presentations, threatened to charge CPL members with trespassing for participation in a Genocide Awareness Project presentation, and found eight members guilty of non-academic misconduct for their involvement in GAP. (Carpay is representing the club’s members in litigation against the university.)
Other universities where pro-life students have faced discrimination include Dalhousie University in Halifax where campus officials failed to provide security for a debate sponsored by Pro-Life at Dal, despite the fact the club paid the security fee; Simon Fraser University in Vancouver which condoned opponents of SFU Lifeline when they physically obstructed and interrupted their display; the University of Toronto which told the pro-life club to turn their signs inward so passers-by could not see their presentation; the University of Western Ontario in London which denied access to a prominent space to Western Lifeline which wanted to host a forum for women to speak about their abortions; and McGill University in Montreal where security did not respond to attacks on the “Echoes of the Holocaust” presentation by the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, including the physical blocking of the room where the event was held and a threat made against the speaker.
Universities that have student unions with policies that make it difficult or impossible for pro-life clubs to receive official recognition include Lakehead University in Sudbury where the LU Student Union declared itself officially “pro-choice,” the Memorial University of Newfoundland Student’s Union which “removed club status from MUN for Life in 2007 for not adhering to MUNSU’s pro-choice position on abortion,” and the Students’ Society of McGill University which “bans politically incorrect speech.”
Carpay said, “if universities and student councils can censor the pro-life view, then they can censor anything and they will eventually censor anything.” He also explained, “taxpayers are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to these institutions that promise to be a forum for frank debate. It’s disconcerting to see this.”
Carpay said censorship on campus has larger ramifications for society. “If censorship is okay on a university campus, I think there is a spin-off effect that harms the health of free speech outside the university as well.”