Campus Freedom at Concordia?
New Freedom of Speech Index Gives Concordia ‘C’ Average
Concordia University placed higher than the national average in the third annual Campus Freedom Index released Tuesday Sept. 24, a report card-type initiative which seeks to determine the state of free speech at Canadian universities.
Both the university administration and the Concordia Student Union received a “C” grade in the report for their policies, as well as a “C” and “D” respectively for their practices in either encouraging or restricting free speech on campus.
“Concordia gets good marks—or they get points, rather—for first of all having a statement that does state that the university will uphold free speech,” said the report’s co-author Michael Kennedy, communications and development coordinator for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which published the Campus Freedom Index.
“They also have an anti-disruption policy which not a lot of universities have, so they get credit for that,” he added.
But Kennedy says Concordia’s policies and practices also have their conflicts with the report’s grading methodology.
“The definition of harassment [in Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities] is so vague and uses such vague terminology that university administrators can interpret [it] to empower administrative action to censor a student group because their event, or their views, or their purpose is contrary to the Code of Rights and Responsibilities,” said Kennedy.
“The policies aren’t necessarily explicitly empowering universities to act in censorship, but it does use ambiguous and subjective terms that university administrators could use to censor students, which is why we don’t give them an ‘F’ for their policies but we do give them a [‘C’].”
“The policies aren’t necessarily explicitly empowering universities to act in censorship, but it does use ambiguous and subjective terms that university administrators could use to censor students, which is why we don’t give them an ‘F’ for their policies but we do According to the report’s methodology, a university can only receive an “A” grade if “there is no prohibition on speech which a listener might find ‘offensive,’ ‘discriminatory,’ ‘disrespectful,’ ‘inappropriate,’ or ‘creating a negative environment,’ etc.”
Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities states that it is an offence to publish, communicate or distribute on campus an opinion “of any matter deemed to be discriminatory or to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.”
Articles 3 and 4 of Concordia’s VPS-10 space usage policy state that complaints made towards an event or action on campus for violating the code will be taken to the dean of students, who will seek to mediate a solution between both sides.
The university also has sole discretion to request any amount of Concordia security it deems necessary to be stationed at a controversial event, at the event organizer’s expense, according to Article 42 of Concordia’s policy on the temporary usage of university space, known as VPS-24.
Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota says the policy is in place to ensure all reasonable opinions concerning a controversial topic are presented, but also to curb discrimination on campus.
“What the university is saying is we are trying to help you ensure that you can have your event and that [it] is done safely,” said Mota.
“It’s always looking towards the positive, to making the event happen. But, we have a responsibility here: if we don’t believe something can happen safely and the organizers don’t understand that and are not willing to do what needs to be done, then yes, we’ll cancel an event, because our first responsibility is to the community.”
Defending Rights “to the Death”
The JCCF, founded in 2010, is a Calgary-based group started by constitutional lawyer John Carpay which aims to “defend the constitutional freedoms of Canada through litigation and education” and provides “pro bono legal representation to Canadians facing a violation of one of their human rights or constitutional freedoms,” according to its website.
The JCCF’s website also states that the organization believes constitutional freedoms can only be preserved by upholding Canada’s traditions of “constitutionally limited government, the equality of all citizens before the law, and the rule of law.”
Carpay, the other co-author of the Campus Freedom Index, has been practicing law in Alberta since 1999 and was the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Alberta director from 2001 to 2005. He also ran for provincial office in 2012 as a candidate for the Wildrose Alliance Political Association, a socially and politically conservative party in Alberta formed in 2008.
He drew 38 per cent of the vote in the Calgary-Lougheed riding, losing to Progressive Conservative incumbent Dave Rodney by nearly 2,000 votes.
Carpay has also represented some controversial clients in court. He defended William Whatcott against the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission following Whatcott’s distribution of flyers denouncing homosexuality. Whatcott’s freedom of expression was defeated for violating provincial hate crime laws, even following appeals that went to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Carpay is also currently counselling Trent Lifeline, a pro-life student organization at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, which was refused club status by the university’s undergraduate student organization.
But Carpay says while he may defend these positions in court, they are not necessarily views he agrees with.
“I’m a big fan of the quote that’s attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’” he said. “That’s one of my favourite quotes, and that’s our guiding philosophy, because the [JCCF has] no position on abortion, on gay rights, on any political topic really.
“It’s an ongoing educational project, explaining to people, […] we’re not in favour of ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ but we think that she should be allowed to say that without getting threatened by the university with the penalty of expulsion or without being ordered by a human rights commission to pay thousands of dollars to people who feel offended by the expression,” he continued.
The JCCF’s report also took issue with Concordia undergraduates’ vote to strike on March 22, 2012, and particularly the CSU’s handling of the vote.
“Students who spoke against the strike received angry responses from the crowd, and often dismissive responses from CSU leaders,” read the report.
“The majority voted to strike, but the vote took place by a show of hands rather than secret ballot. After the motion passed, the crowd grew rowdy and hostile against the few that did end up voting against the bill to strike.”
The source identified for the incident was a press release from Concordia President Alan Shepard, which was subsequently taken down from the university’s website. An archived version of the release does not include any information regarding the vote, nor any reference that CSU leaders or other students chastised those against the strike.
Reporters for The Link were at multiple voting locations during the special general meeting, which was streamed live over the Internet when possible to other meeting locations despite some technical issues. The alleged behaviour by pro-strike students mentioned in the index does not corroborate with The Link‘s coverage of the strike vote.
CSU President Melissa Kate Wheeler, who was not a part of the union at the time of the strike, was unable to be reached for comment before press time.
As for Mota, she says she thinks the university is ultimately successful at balancing the rights to free speech and expression at Concordia with reasonable restrictions.
“I think the bottom line is, you’ll have your critics and you’ll have your supporters,” she said.
“What’s more important for us is not the critics or the supporters or who thinks we’re doing right or wrong, it’s what we feel about ourselves, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job.