Can’t Pick and Choose Free Speech: U of M missed opportunity to lead

Commentary, Education, Joseph Quesnel

The latest barometer on university campus freedom of expression has found one Manitoba university wanting, but it is not one of the worst.

The 2012 Campus Freedom Index measures the state of free speech at Canadian universities and is produced by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, an independent organization.

The Index measures campus freedom on a five-tier letter scale — A, B, C, D, and F — and grades the universities on their stated policies and principles against their actual actions and practices.

The first ranking is university policies and principles. Second is university actions and practices. Third is student union policies and principles and fourth is student union actions and practices.

The University of Manitoba was ranked C on the first and D on the second. The third ranking is D and the fourth C. So, nothing to be proud of. But nothing too extreme. Sadly, there are worse campuses.

This was a missed opportunity for Manitoba to distinguish itself in protecting university freedom of expression.

The Campus Freedom Index highlights the growing problems on many campuses where student unions exercise too much power over certification and funding for student groups and deny funding for groups they oppose.

Also odious are university policies that affect freedom of expression, often dubbed “Free speech codes.” Thankfully, the University of Manitoba’s bylaw on student discipline and policy on inappropriate or disruptive student behaviour do not include speech as grounds for violation.

However, the university’s Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy prohibits speech deemed “discriminatory” or “harassing.” This sounds great on the surface, until one realizes it can used to limit legitimate discourse.

The Red Lion — a publication of the engineering society — published a satirical Valentine’s Day issue in 2010 which was called sexist. However, no censorship resulted. The main controversy resulted from “Israeli Apartheid Week.” The U of M, to its credit, allowed the event to proceed and defended free speech. Apartheid Week is silly and inflammatory, but it should be challenged, not shut down. In 2009 a Muslim group voluntarily removed some arguably anti-Semitic images from a display after they were notified of complaints.

Student union policies are more troubling. The University of Manitoba Student Union’s Policy Manual protects students from “harassing” and “offensive” speech, which usually has to do with the Human Rights Code. While the student union was happy to defend “Israeli Apartheid Week,” it was not so keen to support a professor who distributed a flyer, “18 Myths spread by Gay and Lesbian activists.” So, it is selective free speech.

In 2009 students showed little respect for free expression when the University of Manitoba Aboriginal Students’ Association tried to interfere with a speaking engagement by Dr. Tom Flanagan from the University of Calgary. Although Flanagan was speaking about political campaigning, the group wanted a chance to refute his “extreme ideologies” on aboriginal issues.

So, the problem is hubristic students who pick and choose when free expression should be defended. They also have the power of the purse to persecute opposing groups.

One hopes the U of M will improve its scores. I am not holding my breath over the U of W and BU when they are finally included