Canadian Universities Are Far Too Tolerant Of Obstructionist Behaviour That Shuts Down Free Speech

September 2017

It seems there is a new doctrine rapidly gaining acceptance at universities across Canada: Silencing people you disagree with is OK, as long your tactics of disruption and obstruction are not violent.

In recent months, there have been a growing number of incidents of university presidents blithely condoning the silencing of speakers who have unpopular views (or at least views that are unpopular with a vocal minority).

To cite just one example, this past March a mob of loud protesters effectively shut down a presentation at McMaster University by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. They rang bells and beat drums, chanting “Shut him down!” and “Transphobic piece of s–t!” Peterson could not be heard in the classroom. He eventually went outside, and the loud mob followed. Peterson had been invited to speak at McMaster about freedom of speech and political correctness.

More worrisome than the noisy mob was the response of Patrick Dean, president of McMaster University. Dean characterized the loud bell-ringing, drum-beating and disruptive chanting as “peaceful protest.” He said McMaster should allow such activities, and will continue to allow them in future.

This same thinking clearly prevails at the University of Alberta. In the case of UAlberta Pro-Life v. University of Alberta, heard in Edmonton June 8 and 9, 2017, the university argued before the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench that a loud, unruly, physically disruptive mob should be entitled to shut down campus events, as long as the mob is non-violent.

The U of A is defending its decision not to discipline any of the students who blockaded a pro-life display on campus in March 2015, notwithstanding that provisions in its Code of Student Behaviour expressly prohibit disruption, obstruction and inappropriate behaviour. The code states that its purpose is upholding the freedom to speak, study, learn, write and publish in the pursuit of truth. The code states that for these freedoms to exist, “it is essential to maintain an atmosphere in which the safety, the security, and the inherent dignity of each member of the community are recognized.”

Nonetheless, the U of A maintains that students who physically obstructed a stationary display with sheets and banners, making it nearly impossible for a campus club to express its opinions, were legitimately exercising their own freedom of expression. This position is especially disingenuous given that, in March of 2015, campus security repeatedly told the blockaders they were violating the code, and then-university president Indira Samarasekera had previously publicly stated that the suppression of unpopular views would not be tolerated.

In court, the U of A argued that freedom of expression encompasses all behaviour short of violence. But the university’s own code bans not only violence, but inappropriate behaviour, such as disrupting classes and obstructing university-related functions. The code serves to curtail “behaviours which if left unchecked would, to an unacceptable degree, infringe upon the freedoms described above and thus threaten the proper functioning of the University.”

Adding insult to injury, after condoning the violation of the code by blockaders, the U of A went on to demand a $17,500 security fee of the pro-life students if they wanted to set up a display again in the future. The university is effectively censoring students who wish to peacefully convey a controversial message that no person is required to accept or agree with. Yet nothing stops the university from demanding $17,500 from the blockaders, whose behaviour and identities are well known to campus security, and who boasted publicly on social media about their “success” in silencing their opponents’ expression. Rather than enforcing the code’s provisions against students who physically obstruct campus events, the university blames the victims of this misconduct.

Would the U of A condone holding up sheets to prevent students in a classroom from seeing a professor’s power-point presentation about an unpopular theory? Should the professor be required to pay security fees because of his ideas? Why should it be any different for a student club that has the university’s approval to set up a display on campus?

If the U of A wins in court, its victory will almost certainly come back to haunt the university. Students will realize they can violate the code with impunity and silence those with whom they disagree.