The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has released its annual report on the state of free speech in Canada’s universities, and it doesn’t bode well for the liberty of students on campus.
The 2014 Campus Freedom Index gives four grades in total to each of Canada’s 52 publicly funded universities. The administration and student union at each institution receive two grades based on how much their official policy and actual day-to-day practices enshrine freedom of speech. There were only 5 A grades given out. There were, however, 33 Fs, with most of them (19) going to the student unions. 24 universities got at least one F.
The report summarizes some positive and negative developments in free speech rights on campus during the 2013-2014 school year. For instance, the Brandon University Students’ Union improved their grade from an F to a B because they reversed a previous decision made in 2012 and 2013 to deny club status to a group of pro-lifers. The union had reasoned that a pro-life club would be “redundant” because “the Women’s Collective deals with all gender issues.” In April 2013, the JCCF sent a legal warning letter to the BUSU and the union later decided in September 2013 to grant club status to the pro-life group.
Another positive development occurred at the University of Calgary, where seven pro-life students were charged with “non-academic misconduct” for refusing to face the signs inwards in their pro-life display to prevent passersby from seeing them. Represented by the JCCF, the students took the university before the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. In Wilson et al. v. University of Calgary (released on April 1, 2014), the court found that the university’s decision was unreasonable. The Board of Governors allowed the students to appeal and removed the charges.
On the other hand, the University of Regina went down from an A to an F after two protesters were arrested in April 2014 for peacefully handing out pamphlets and holding up signs. One of the signs stated that “sodomy is a sin.” The Trent Central Students’ Association earned an F after denying club status to a pro-life group because “all groups at Trent must be inclusive.” As well, the York Federation of Students (which also earned an F) cancelled an abortion debate hours before it was scheduled to start because “abortion is not an issue to debate.”
The report also makes note of some university practices that act as vehicles to limit free speech in general, such as speech codes, codes of conduct, “safe spaces,” anti-harassment and discrimination policies, security fees, event booking policies, anti-disruption policies, club certification procedures, as well as the imposition of “inclusiveness” on campus clubs.
The authors of the report note the impact that previous editions have had towards changing university policy and practices. One example is the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA), which repealed a speech code that had been used to deny club status to a pro-life group because the CUSA’s official position was “pro-choice.” The motion that repealed the code made specific mention of the Campus Freedom Index.
Canadian citizens have a stake in how their universities perform when it comes to free speech. “The Index reports that the 24 campuses earning at least one ‘F’ grade receive more than $6.5 billion annually from our governments, in part so they can live up to their own missions of fostering the free exchange of ideas and academic freedom on campus,” states the press release. “The Campus Freedom Index shows that these universities are failing in that mission, and taxpayers should hold them to account.”