By Sarah Boesveld. The “abysmal” state of free speech at Canadian public universities is stifling students’ right to speak their minds, according to a new report card that gives mostly failing grades to universities and their student unions.
The 2012 Campus Freedom Index (download PDF), released Wednesday by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, awarded only three A’s to 35 universities and student unions it analyzed in its second annual report. A grade of ‘F’ was far more common — handed out 28 times to 12 universities and 16 student unions for everything from cancelling controversial speakers and obstructing pro-life groups to banning the expression “Israeli Apartheid.”
“Everyone’s forced to pay for these universities through tax dollars and the universities get the money in part by claiming to be these centres of free inquiry,” said JCCF president John Carpay, who co-authored the report. “It’s fundamentally dishonest for the university to go to the government … and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars on the pretext that they are a centre for free inquiry and then receive the money and turn around and censor unpopular opinions.”
While universities scored an average grade of C for having fairly sound policies and principles around free speech, the report said they weren’t as good at following them.
For example, the University of Toronto earned an A for its policies, which include a statement on freedom of speech from its governing council and student code of conduct provisions that protect a person’s right to voice views not everyone may agree with. But it scored an F for its actions — the report citing the administration’s 2008 effort to have pro-life groups turn their graphic posters towards the wall. Another example was a group being charged a $400 security fee for holding an Israeli Apartheid Week, a move study authors deemed unfair.
Student unions scored lower in the rankings, earning a D average on both policies and actions.
“The Index sheds light on the significant role that Canadian student unions play in damaging the free speech climate on campus,” the authors wrote, adding that they were particularly troubled that 10 student unions denied official club certification to student groups based solely on the content of their message, not because of misconduct. The student unions at Carleton University and Memorial University of Newfoundland scored Fs because they “refused” to certify pro-life clubs, the report said.
Student unions at the University of Saskatchewan, University of Victoria, University of Calgary, University of Western Ontario, University of Guelph, McGill University and Lakehead University have all banned campus pro-life groups at different times in recent years, earning them Fs, according to the report.
Pro-life groups seem to be the “current target” on campuses, Mr. Carpay said, but in 20 years it could well be another group that doesn’t fit with the popular view of the day. He was especially troubled by the arrest of pro-life protesters at Carleton University in October, 2010, whose trespassing charges have since been dropped. President of the Carleton University Students’ Association, Alexander Golovko, said in an email to the Post that the results from this index “are not fully representative of the current state of affairs” at Carleton. “This year my team and I are striving to ensure there are open and accessible debates on issues that matter to students.”
The national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, Adam Awad, dismissed the index, saying it did not explain its methodology well enough to support its criticism of student unions. Email: