University of Calgary must free its students

September 2012

Public universities are the last sanctuary to abide, if not stimulate, the free flow of ideas, debate and controversy. Punishing and banishing students, staff and faculty who express their ideas and opinions (much as I am doing here) must not be tolerated if universities are to remain relevant and effective.

Over the past five years, we have watched students being disciplined for their thoughts, consciences and beliefs and their expression of them on the campus of the University of Calgary. This has been peaceful activity protected by the charter for 30 years in the public realm. The student speech did not come close to the disturbances of the Occupy activities last fall that our public authorities tolerated.

Nevertheless, student tuition money and taxpayer money, likely in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars, has been spent to silence and evict individuals from university property because someone might be offended by their honest beliefs about abortion, same sex marriage, the helpfulness of their professor, or whatever.

Free the students. Let them speak and argue. Let the best ideas prevail in the campus square. This is the lifeblood of democracy.

I have heard three reasons stated for university control of student speech. With respect, they are all flawed.

The first argument is that certain graphic images, like aborted fetuses, or words must be suppressed because they might incite others to violence. The public peace needs to be preserved. Should we limit public discourse by appeasing all who would choose to respond with violence? We cannot allow violence to be justified merely on the ground that it was provoked.

The problem with the incitement to violence argument is that it erroneously focuses on the expresser, when rather we ought to restrain the aggressor.

The second argument is that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not clearly apply to public universities. This remains an open legal question. But why does the University of Calgary have to run the test case, arguing that it should not apply? Why not respect freedom of student expression on campus as a value, even if the Supreme Court of Canada has not yet compelled it as a matter of law?

The third argument relates to universities being at arm’s length from government. Academic freedom means that professors should pursue truth and knowledge free of government meddling. We are not to be mouthpieces for partisan politics. The university administration (more than faculty members doing actual research) are concerned if we are in the same legal category as government, regulated by the charter, our own research and teaching functions will suffer political interference.

If we were a mere branch of government, without academic freedom, we could never criticize government and its policies. Then we would never cure cancer or discover new alternative fuel sources or interpret Shakespeare correctly because we are symbolically an arm of government burdened by its own political agenda.

Well, universities are already influenced by government, which incorporates and funds them. It legislates for them. Government monitors and regulates universities through ministries and policies and it makes appointments to the board and senate.

It is strange reasoning that universities need to operate beyond the reach of the charter, and to suppress free speech, so researchers might have a better chance to cure cancer. Being subject to provincial human rights, privacy and employment law has not hindered academic freedom. The charter will not destroy Canadian universities. Academic administration fetters academic freedom more than government.

There are also non-legal reasons to free the students.

The University of Calgary has endeavoured to improve its “student experience” ranking. Riding herd on students by curtailing their speech and demanding they sign statements contrary to their personal convictions are not endearing, student-friendly gestures. The university cannot litigate its way into students’ hearts and use the courts to soar in the rankings.

A university can’t begin to control speech in all its forms. Even a $1-billion budget cannot monitor the blogs, forums, e-mails, texts, websites and conversations on and off campus.

I’ve had unspeakably worse things said and written about me over the years, than that which came to light in the Pridgen case. I’ve faced threats. No action was taken by administration. I’ve also been disciplined for far less wrong than described in that case. If disciplinary action is politicized, none is better.

The academic leadership utterly misjudged the issues at stake and they mismanaged their response. Caught off guard, it responded with a heavy hand. The university should have had an hour-long conversation with the Pridgen family back in 2007. The matter could have been quietly resolved.

Instead, the university dug in and offered up untenable arguments. It gambled that its huge financial advantage might extract a win by attrition, but it did not. Intractable litigation against its own students is failed leadership.

So what now? If the university learns nothing from these judges and their ruling, it will apply for leave to the Supreme Court of Canada.

If, on the other hand, the university is humbled by this public embarrassment, it will immediately reclaim this dispute from the lawyers, reconcile with (and try to win back) the Pridgen family, come clean on what this battle has cost and ensure accountability. And the university will free the students.