Universities Are Too Easy On Students Out To Silence Free Speech

Silencing people you disagree with is OK, as long your tactics of disruption, obstruction and physical blockading are not violent.

This is the new doctrine that is rapidly gaining acceptance at universities across Canada.

One could easily write a book about the growing number of incidents where university presidents blithely condone the silencing of speakers with unpopular views (or views unpopular with a vocal minority).

Jordan Peterson

As just one example, this past March a mob of loud protesters effectively shut down a presentation at McMaster University by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. They rang bells and beat drums, chanting “Shut him down!” and “Transphobic piece of s–t!” Dr. Peterson could not be heard in the classroom. He eventually went outside, the loud mob following. The University of Toronto psychology professor had been invited to speak at McMaster about freedom of speech and political correctness.

More worrisome than the noisy mob was the response of Patrick Deane, president of McMaster University. He characterized the loud bell-ringing, drum-beating and disruptive chanting as “peaceful protest” which McMaster should allow, and will allow in future.

This same thinking prevails at the University of Alberta. In the case of UAlberta Pro-Life v. University of Alberta, heard in Edmonton June 8 and 9, 2017, the university argues that a loud, unruly, physically disruptive mob should be entitled to shut down campus events, as long as the mob is non-violent.

University of Alberta, Edmonton

The U of A is defending its decision not to discipline any of the students who blockaded a pro-life display on campus in March of 2015. This in spite of clear provisions in the Code of Student Behaviour that expressly prohibit disruption, obstruction and inappropriate behaviour. The code states that its purpose is upholding the freedom to speak, study, learn, write and publish, in the pursuit of truth. The code states that for these freedoms to exist, “it is essential to maintain an atmosphere in which the safety, the security, and the inherent dignity of each member of the community are recognized.”

Nonetheless, the U of A maintains that students who physically obstructed a stationary display with sheets and banners, making it nearly impossible for a campus club to express its opinions, were legitimately exercising their own freedom of expression. This in spite of the fact that, in March of 2015, campus security repeatedly told the blockaders that they were violating the Code. And in spite of a public statement by then-president Indira Samarasekera that the suppression of unpopular views would not be tolerated.

The U of A argues that freedom of expression encompasses all behaviour short of violence. But the university’s own code bans not only violence, but inappropriate behaviour, such as disrupting classes and obstructing university-related functions. The code serves to curtail “behaviours which if left unchecked would, to an unacceptable degree, infringe upon the freedoms described above and thus threaten the proper functioning of the university.”

If the U of A wins in court, its victory will come back to haunt the campus.

Adding insult to injury, after condoning the violation of the code by blockaders, the U of A went on to demand a $17,500 security fee of the pro-life students if they wanted to set up a display again in the future. The university is effectively censoring students who wish to convey peacefully a controversial message that no person is required to accept or agree with. Yet nothing stops the University from demanding $17,500 from the blockaders, whose behaviour and identities are well known to campus security, and who boasted publicly on social media about their “success” in silencing their opponents’ expression. Rather than enforcing the code’s provisions against physically obstructing campus events, the university blames the victims of this misconduct.

Would the U of A condone holding up sheets to prevent students in a classroom from seeing a professor’s PowerPoint presentation about an unpopular theory? Should the professor be required to pay security fees because of his ideas? Why should it be different for a student club that has the University’s approval to set up a display on campus?

If the U of A wins in court, its victory will come back to haunt the campus, because students will realize they can violate the code with impunity, and silence those with whom they disagree.

Calgary lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (www.jccf.ca) which represents the students in their court action against the University of Alberta. This blog appeared in the National Post, June 13, 2017.

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