The University of Saskatchewan did neither excellent nor poor when rated in the 2013 Campus Freedom Index, a study that measures the state of free speech rights at Canadian universities.
Implemented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, the U of S received a “C” for university policies, university practices and student union practices as well as a “B” for student union policies.
The report grades universities and student unions using a five-tier letter scale — “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” and “F” — on their stated policies and their practices. Each university receives a letter grade for university policies, university practices, student union policies and student union practices.
With a grand total of 180 grades awarded to 45 campuses, only six universities and student unions in Canada received “A” grades. On the other hand, 32 “F” grades were handed out — 13 to universities and 19 to student unions. The study also assigned 19 “B’s”, 80 “C’s” and 43 “D’s”.
In total, 23 campuses earned at least one “F”. More than half of the 45 universities studied have engaged in the censorship of student expression on campus.
“The [U of S] gets poor marks for maintaining policies which indirectly or directly empower university officials to engage in censorship against students based on their views or expression. It lacks policies which protect students against discrimination based on expression,” said Michael Kennedy, co-author of the study.
“Past incidents of censorship at the hands of the [U of S Students’ Union], such as its treatment of the [U of S] Students for Life, warrant lower grades in the practices section of the USSU report.”
According to the report, the USSU’s Table Space Rental Policy, a policy governing the usage of tables in the Arts Tunnel, states that the union “reserves the right to decide any point not covered in the above rules and further reserves the right to refuse any booking.” The policy also states that “offensive materials” will not be allowed on group table displays but does not qualify what is considered offensive.
The USSL — a pro-life club — was temporarily denied club status by the USSU in September of 2009 but was reinstated that November. There had been a number of complaints against the USSL in the 2008-9 academic year. The USSU Women’s Centre brought forward a complaint on behalf of an individual who did not feel safe with the pro-life club displaying graphic images without any warning.
However, Kennedy praises the USSU for its free speech policies.
“The USSU earns a solid ‘B’ in the policies section of this year’s Campus Freedom Index after it passed a new Free Speech Policy in the winter semester of the 2012-13 year. The Free Speech Policy obliges the USSU to respect free speech rights on campus, to refrain from content-based censorship and to facilitate the free exchange of ideas,” Kennedy said.
“This is a commendable action on the part of the USSU to make up for past injustices, and it gives students a shield against unlawful censorship by future administrations.”
However, the Campus Freedom Index said the new Free Speech Policy is somewhat undermined by the USSU Campus Group Policy which states: “In the event that a campus group engages in behaviour that is considered to be … unfit for an inclusive, welcoming and open learning environment, the union reserves the right to take action against said group. In particular, each student has the right not to be harassed or otherwise made to feel discomfort by another.”
USSU President Max FineDay said he is comfortable with the policies that the union has in place.
FineDay said the USSU policies regarding free speech “ensure that students aren’t barraged with offensive images or content that they didn’t ask to be exposed to,” adding that these bylaws do not affect a vast majority of student groups.
U of S President Ilene Busch-Vishniac cites safety as her chief concern when it comes to freedom of expression on campus.
The U of S has “two sometimes conflicting principles we hold in great esteem — our responsibility in protecting the safety and well-being of everyone in our community and our firm belief that we must guard free expression of opinions,” Busch-Vishniac said.
“Unless we see a potential threat to safety or a legal line being crossed from expression to hate speech, our policies are likely to permit a speaker or event to proceed. If we perceive a threat to safety, that will always take precedence.”
Taking an average of universities’ policies and practices, the Campus Freedom Index named Carleton University and the University of Ottawa as the worst universities in Canada for free expression. Both Carleton and Ottawa have actively censored student speech, earning “D”’s for their policies and “F”’s for their practices.
Three student unions received failing grades across the board. The Lakehead University Students’ Union, the University of Victoria Students’ Society and the York Federation of Students all received “F” grades for restricting free speech on campus through both their policies and practices.
To earn an “A” with respect to university policies, the university must have a clear and unequivocal commitment to free speech on campus set out in the university’s mission, vision, statement on academic freedom or other policy documents. The university’s anti-discrimination policies cannot be used to censor unpopular, controversial or politically incorrect speech. There is no prohibition on speech that may be “offensive,” “discriminatory,” “disrespectful,” “inappropriate”, or “creating a negative environment”.
Written policies must also ensure that security fees will not be used as an indirect method to censor controversial or unpopular speech. Anti-disruption policies must ensure that the university will not condone anyone engaging in the obstruction, suppression or interruption of speech with which they disagree.
If three, two or one of the criteria are met, an institution will receive “B”, “C” or “D” grades, respectively. An “F” is given when the university fails to meet any of these criteria.
By earning an “A” for university practices, the institution has acted decisively to permit the expression of unpopular speech on campus by rejecting demands to cancel events or otherwise suppress speech and by providing adequate security to prevent any obstruction, suppression or interruption of the event.
Institutions that receive failing grades for their practices have actively censored student speech by engaging in one or more of the following: imposing security fees on groups because their expression is unpopular; denying equal access to campus spaces, rooms or facilities; imposing special conditions or restrictions on the expression of some groups; cancelling events if protesters might be present; charging students with trespassing based on the content of their peaceful expression or charging students with non-academic misconduct for expressing unpopular opinions on campus.
For student union policies to earn an “A” they must have a stated commitment to free speech on campus set out in their mission, vision or policy documents; written policies which expressly protect diversity of opinion and prevent the student union executive from discriminating against a club on the basis of its beliefs, opinions or philosophy; policies which prohibit discrimination in regards to club certification, club funding and the allocation of resources such as room-booking and space-booking.
The union must also have election rules and regulations that do not empower elections officers to censor speech during elections or referenda; policies which restrict the student union’s advocacy on issues related to post-secondary education without adopting or promoting formal positions in respect of provincial, federal or international issues.
The same grading scheme as the one used for university policies is used for student union policies.
Student union practices that receive an “A” grade have spoken or acted to support freedom of expression for unpopular opinions and beliefs on campus, have rejected demands to cancel events or have spoken out against university actions that suppress free speech rights. Regarding campus club certification, club funding and allocation of resources to campus clubs, the student union has not discriminated on the basis of the club’s beliefs, opinions or philosophy.
To earn an “F” grade, the student union has actively discriminated against campus clubs purely on the basis of the club’s beliefs, opinions or philosophy by refusing to certify a proposed club, refusing to provide a club with funding on par with other campus clubs, refusing to provide a club with equal access to resources such as room and space-bookings or imposing other restrictions on clubs based on the content of the club’s expression, beliefs, opinions or philosophy.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor