The University of Saskatchewan’s Student Union ranks in the top five student unions in Canada when it comes to advancing and protecting the principles of freedom of speech, according to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
The JCCF, an Alberta based constitutional law organization founded in 2010, recently released its 2014 Campus Freedom Index. The index is an annual report that according to Michael Kennedy, communications and development coordinator for the JCCF, attempts to “shine the light on universities and student unions who have engaged in unlawful censorship against students, faculty and invited guests.”
The index ranks both student unions and university administrations on their policies and their practices using a graded scale from “A” to “F”, grading each on their own distinct set of standards.
In order for a student union to receive an “A” grade for the policy category it must meet four criteria, which the CFI report indicates as having a commitment to free speech on campus; 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 or room booking; regulations and rules that do not empower elections officers to censor free speech during elections; policies must be in place which restrict the student union’s advocacy on issues related to post-secondary education.
In order for a student union to receive an “A” grade in the practices category it must meet the following criteria: the student union has spoken or acted to support freedom of expression for unpopular opinions and beliefs on campus; the student union has not discriminated against any campus club on the bases of the club’s beliefs, opinions or philosophy during club certification, club funding and resource allocation. For a student union to receive an “F” grade the student union must have actively discriminated against campus clubs due to the club’s beliefs, opinions or philosophies. Grades of “B”, “C” or “D” are awarded in relation to these criteria.
In either section, if the student union only meets three of the four criteria then it will be given a “B” grade. This pattern continues until none of the criteria are met, which results in the student union being given a grade of “F”.
This year the USSU earned a grade of “B” for the policies that they have implemented while earning a “C” for their practices. There was no change from the grades the USSU earned in the 2013 report.
The U of S administration earned a “C” for both its policies and practices.
Not a single student union in Canada earned an “A” in this year’s report.
While the rankings for the USSU are impressive, president Max FineDay was dismissive of the CFI and said that he pays no attention to these rankings whatsoever.
When asked about the JCCF, FineDay also responded negatively.
“The JCCF has no business here, have no business on how I should be running my student union. Honestly I don’t think they have the best interests of students in mind.”
In an email to the Sheaf, Kennedy revealed what can be done by the USSU in order to improve its grades.
“The USSU can still improve its grades by repealing or at least clarifying what it means when it bans ‘offensive language’ in its space rental and poster policies. It can also clarify whether it is still imposing unique and discriminatory restrictions on its pro-life club, [U of S Students for Life], to improve its grade for student union practices.”
Despite Kennedy’s concerns, FineDay seems comfortable with the USSU’s current policies.
“We aren’t hearing of any problems that are coming out of this policy. I think the students are very well served by this policy, certainly a lot more than they were.”
During the four-year period that the CFI has been published, student unions across the country have implemented changes in response to the negative grades they have received. The USSU is one of those organizations.
In 2012, the USSU received an “F” due to the fact that the union had, at the time, “unfettered power to de-ratify a campus club based on its views, opinions, philosophy and expression.”
As a response, the USSU, led by then vice-president operations and finance Steven Heidel, worked in partnership with the JCCF to add a Free Speech Policy to its policy book.
Passed in 2013, the policy states that the USSU would “support and protect the free speech of all parties under its jurisdiction.”
Kennedy mentioned that the Free Speech Policy is “highly commendable.” However, the JCCF still believes that more work can be done throughout Canada.
“The CFI shows that half of Canada’s universities are failing to live up to their missions of fostering the free exchange of ideas on campus,” said Kennedy. “The CFI is informing more students, parents and taxpayers about the state of free speech at Canada’s universities, mobilizing them to promote and defend free speech both on and off the campus.”
Graphics: Stephanie Mah/Graphics Editor