Expression Not So Free at University

Commentary, Education, Joseph Quesnel

How do Manitoba universities fare when it comes to protecting freedom of expression?

According to the 2013 Campus Freedom Index, Manitoba universities are not doing so fantastic.

In Manitoba, 67% of campuses earned at least one ‘F’ in the index’s four categories.

Saskatchewan and New Brunswick ranked as the best provinces for campus freedom of expression. In those provinces, none of the institutions surveyed scored an ‘F’ grade. By contrast, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador scored the lowest because every institution surveyed received at least one ‘F.’

The Index is an annual measure of campus free speech at universities all across Canada. This year, the University of Winnipeg and Brandon University were included.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, an independent organization based in Calgary, produces the Index.

I wrote about the Index last year when the survey only included the University of Manitoba. It bears repeating how the index is constructed.

It measures campus freedom of expression on a five-tier letter grade scale. The index measures universities on their stated or expressed policies versus their actual practices.

The first ranking is university policies and principles. Next is university actions and practices. After that, student union policies and principles and then student union actions and practices.

First, the University of Manitoba. On the four categories, the university received a C, C, D, and an F.

The University of Winnipeg received a C, C, C, and C.

Brandon University scored C, D, D, and F.

In the case of the University of Manitoba, it appears the student union decided to side with protecting feelings over preserving freedom of expression. The report reads that on April 2013, the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) Council passed a resolution to remove official group status from Students Against Israeli Apartheid and to ban the club from UMSU space. The union justified the ban on the grounds that the group’s Israeli Apartheid Week discriminates against “Zionists” which they defined as sharing “national characteristics.”

However, make no mistake, Israeli Apartheid Week deserves to be challenged and ridiculed by critics because of its preposterous and inflammatory claims. However, banning them from organizing does not respect their freedoms.

At Brandon University, things were not much better. The report stated that the Brandon University Students Union opposed the creation of a campus pro-life club, Brandon University Students for Life throughout the 2012-2013 school year. What was the union’s justification? The Women’s Collective already dealt with women’s reproductive issues, so the group would be redundant.

So, while Manitoba universities are not the worst of the worst, they are certainly not the best.

All universities must create environments where respect for freedom of expression and inquiry is the rule. This week, some students at the University of Manitoba protested a pro-life exhibit that compared abortion to various forms of genocide. The Genocide Awareness Project regularly tours Canadian and American campuses, encountering opposition in most places they go. The administration confirmed that they have received complaints. But, will the university cave to popular pressure and try to ban the exhibit?

This may be a test for that university.

Let’s hope Manitoba universities clean up their acts for next year.