By Olivia McLeod
The Ottawa air was frigid in the early morning hours of January 22, but it didn’t matter.
Arun Smith’s blood was boiling.
The 24-year-old student was offended by comments about gay marriage and abortion that had been written on a free speech wall set up in Carleton University’s atrium by the Students for Liberty club.
So, he tore it down. He cut off the legs, dragged it outside, jumped on it twice and cracked it into three pieces before finally disposing of it in the recycling bin.
Smith’s act is just one in a series of recent free speech incidents that have occurred on Canadian university campuses. Montreal’s McGill University has put forth a motion to become exempt from Quebec’s Access to Information Commission requests and the University of Western Ontario’s campus newspaper was threatened with relocating their office to an area of half its current size.
It may not be time to sound alarm bells about free speech issues, but it is time to explore the impact of these instances on Canadian university campuses and review how Ryerson fares in comparison.
After tearing down the wall, Smith took to his Facebook to explain why he believed it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
In an interview with The Eyeopener, he said his opinion was widely supported and that “the wall was yet another act in a series of violence … against people who feel marginalized on campus. So the wall needed to come down.” A further trigger, he said, was that the wall was revealed on the same day that Carleton’s Pride Week began, an event he helped coordinate as Carleton’s “Challenge Homophobia and Transphobia” campaign co-ordinator.
Many people disagreed with Smith’s action, including the university’s Students’ Association, which tried unsuccessfully to have Smith impeached from the Academic Student Government. And other critics of Smith’s behaviour have called it pure censorship.
“He is so high on his own opinions that he actually thinks that he can legitimately stop other people from speaking and saying things that he disagrees with … he assumes that his own perspective is not just one perspective but absolute truth,” said John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), which issues an annual report called The State of Campus Free Speech.
While some students have trouble voicing their opinions, others may be losing the privilege to ask questions.
McGill University is pushing for a less-than-open environment by keeping students from filing inquires about the university and its connections to activities like military research and mining investments.
The university has filed a motion with the Quebec Access to Information Commission to stifle the amount of information requests they’ve been receiving. University officials told The Montreal Gazette, that the requests have become
“abusive and unreasonable.” The news has upset some students who say they are legitimately seeking information about their university.
“I think that McGill is causing more problems than they are solving by hiding information from the public,” said first-year McGill student Rebecca MacInnis, in an email.
“If people want to find information badly enough, they will always find a way. When hidden information is exposed it quickly escalates to a completely different level of controversy solely due to the fact that it was kept from the public.” McGill’s motion states the access requests are being used as a “retaliation measure against McGill in the aftermath of the 2011-12 student protests,” and the number of requests jumped from 31 in 2011 to 170 last year, The Montreal Gazette
reported. The university has noted concern that requests are being formulated for gathering material to publish on “McGillLeaks,” which has threatened to release confidential university documents online in 2012.
The University of Western Ontario’s University Students’ Council (USC) is being accused of relocating student spaces on campus without proper consultation with their students.
The USC is trying to move the 40-year-old offices of campus newspaper The Gazette into a space half its current size.
The USC said The Gazette office would be converted into a large multi-faith room, to better accommodate a variety of Western students with diverse faith practices.
But the leaders of various faith groups on campus have collectively stated that there have been no complaints about the existing multi-faith room. Many students have told The Gazette that the existing multi-faith space already fits their needs.
“If the multi-faith groups didn’t want the space, and we didn’t want to move, then there really wasn’t any reason to move,” said Gloria Dickie, editor-in-chief of The Gazette. “The fact that they were doing it without due consultation with both groups made it look a bit suspicious.”
The Gazette has been a Western staple for decades, and still produces four issues per week, more than any other student newspaper in the country. Reducing their space would lessen their ability to produce issues so frequently, therefore minimizing their strong voice on campus.
“We have 24 editors, countless volunteers, so basically it sort of limits the number of volunteers that can be working in the office at once, which, in turn, limits the amount of voices that are heard by the students,” Dickie said. The newspaper met with the USC to discuss the issue of Jan. 17, and agreed that no concrete decision could be made without a consultation of the possible impact on the paper’s operations, and the opinions of the student population.
The final decision will be made by the USC when the budget is released in early March.
While Ryerson hasn’t had to deal with any high profile free speech incidents in recent months, there are issues to consider.
The Senate’s Statement on Freedom of Speech declares that the university has the right to act when speech on campus is used in an unlawful way or prevents others from exercising free speech.
Although inspiring, this declaration should be compared to outside evaluations.
Ryerson, along with 35 other Canadian universities, were graded in the JCCF’s 2012 report co-written by Carpay. Ryerson received grades of C for practices, D for policies and the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) received a D in both categories.
At first glance, Ryerson’s grades may not appear impressive. But in contrast to other universities, they hold their own.
Western received a C on its policies and an F in their practices, while their Students’ Council was given a D in policies and another F in practices. McGill was given Ds in policies and practices, as well as an F in both categories for their Students’ Society. Carleton, with the lowest grades, was handed a C in policies, an F in practices and Fs in the remaining categories for their Students’ Association.
“I think that [the RSU’s rating is] not about stifling people’s ability to speak their minds. I think it’s about making sure that we’re held accountable for the things that we do say, and that we aren’t hiding behind the guise of free speech in order to be hateful,” said RSU vice-president equity Marwa Hamad.
“When we’re talking about free speech, we’re always thinking about who is missing from the conversation. I think often people forget that there is a human rights code that’s there to protect us from hate speech and is there to protect us from things like homophobia and racism and sexism.” The RSU’s own media protocol, which is posted online in their policy manual, lists steps for executives and staff members in dealing with both campus and outside media outlets.
The policy states that step one for executives and staff is to defer, saying,
“Make every effort to defer the interview – even by 15 minutes.” After deferral, the person is told to find out what the story is about and to check in with the other executives in case they have also been approached. This is to ensure all executives send out a “united message” to the reporter. A sub-note states that the Ontario office for the Canadian Federation of Students should be consulted when the RSU is contacted by “external media.”
At this point, protocol states the executive can now conduct the interview, but must stay on message and be clear, and “not complicate the issue or provide too much detail that will alter the interviewer’s direction.” The JCCF report focused on the RSU’s policies regarding the start-up of student groups, which must follow the RSU’s mandate, as well as their poster policy, which states any RSU-associated club event poster must receive RSU approval.
The report argues that these rules give the RSU the option of “selective free speech,” and the opportunity to only approve clubs and posters within their principles or opinions.
“I think that the policies that are put in place are there to ensure inclusivity, to ensure the safety of our students, to ensure the dignity of our students, and to ensure that no one is being hurt or silenced in the process,” said Hamad.
The silencing of a voice is what should be ultimately avoided, says Ryerson president Sheldon Levy.
“The university’s position on freedom of speech is very much the same as pretty much every university, which is you promote the opportunity and the individual’s right to be able to express their opinion.
You ask that it is done respectfully, but at the same time, freedom of speech does not mean that what I have to say is going to make you happy,” he said.
While tension on campus can be uncomfortable or difficult to deal with, Levy said those tensions must be accepted when an individual’s right to expression is on the line.
“Sometimes what we have to always keep in mind is that the strength of freedom of speech is not my freedom but it is the freedom of others to say things that we think are absolutely wrong. And sometimes tensions do happen,” he said.