Student unions held to account on free speech

Law Matters John Carpay

Law Matters John Carpay

Campus free speech hits a temporary road block in October, wih an Ontario court ruling against Students for Life at Ryerson. Since 2013, these pro-life students have been denied their right to set up a campus club by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU). Without status as a registered campus club, the students cannot set up a table on clubs day, cannot advertise, and cannot readily use university rooms and spaces like other campus clubs can. RSU’s adherence to a radical feminist ideology is the sole reason for denying club status to Students for Life, and to the Men’s Issues Awareness Society.

In her judgment, Justice Elizabeth Stewart of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice chose to ignore the fact that RSU is not following its own policies. RSU claims that “Freedom of speech and peaceful assembly are fundamental human rights under the Ontario and Canadian Law. The Ryerson Students’ Union believes that the university campus should be a place where students can access these rights, particularly when it comes to political dissent.” The student union goes on to state “As per section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, all students have the right to the following fundamental freedoms: (1) Freedom of conscience and religion; (2) Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communications; (3) Freedom of peaceful assembly; and (4) Freedom of association.”

Freedom of expression that is limited only to expressing what is popular with a small group of ideologically-motivated students in a student executive is worthless. The reason free societies allow free speech in the first place is not to create an echo chamber, but to allow for full, free and frank debate about what other people consider to be offensive, hurtful, wrong and false.

For the RSU to honour its own clear policies in support of free expression and free association, it cannot deny those freedoms to campus groups just because they espouse views that the RSU executive happens to disagree with.

At one point, the RSU went so far as to accuse these pro-life students of misogyny, opposing gender equality, opposing bodily autonomy, and justifying sexual assault. That the RSU would level these baseless allegations against the students was deemed irrelevant by Justice Stewart.

Justice Stewart refused to consider the Ryerson University Senate Statement on Freedom of Speech, which commits Ryerson University to “embracing unequivocally the free exchange of ideas and the ideal of intellectual engagement within a culture of mutual respect.” She also refused to consider the RSU’s own statements that a pro-life club should be banned from campus because it might cause some students to feel “uncomfortable,” and because the very name “Students for Life at Ryerson” is “intimidating” and might deter pro-choice students from participating in the club.

In what appears to be an example of judicial laziness, Justice Stewart simply ignored the arguments that were put before her. Further, Justice Stewart actually asserts that RSU took into account the pro-life students’ “fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association when deciding SFLR’s application for Student Group status.” She goes on to claim that the pro-life students “are free to hold SFLR meetings, host events and raise funds for their cause.” Technically true, but these pro-life students have to pay large fees out of their own pocket to use a room, when other student clubs do not, solely because the RSU enforces its radical feminist orthodoxy on all students.

Fortunately, this ruling is not the final word on campus free speech. Three other court actions against student unions are moving ahead.

The Ryerson Men’s Issues Awareness Society is suing the RSU, in regard to denial of club status.

The Student Association of Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology is being sued by the pro-life student group Speak for the Weak. This student union claims that allowing a pro-life club on campus would constitute “systemic societal oppression” and would violate “human rights”; only “equity-seeking” clubs are allowed on campus.

In similar fashion, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union is being sued by Students for Life, for barring the student group from using the student centre and accessing student union resources. Again, opposition to abortion is the sole reason for crushing freedom of expression and freedom of association.

These three actions against student unions present the court with the opportunity to follow the law, by recognizing that student unions must respect and apply their own policies.

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