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Margin Notes

I defend your right to say it… well, sort of

A group rates the “state of free speech” on Canadian campuses.


A group called the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has released its 2013 Campus Freedom Index, a report card of sorts on the “state of free speech” at Canada’s public universities. I was unaware this “freedom index” existed, even though it is in fact the third annual such exercise by this group.

It is a rather glaring understatement to say that the issue of free speech on campus is fraught with controversy. As institutions that are meant to foster open intellectual debate and promote the clash of ideas, universities are in a tricky position when it comes to dealing with speech that may be perceived by some as harmful or dangerous. As in the famous “yelling fire in a crowded theatre” metaphor, where do you draw the line?

I think a good illustration of this is the recent offensive frosh week chants (dubbed the “rape chants”) heard at a couple of universities. They were offensive, stupid and adolescent, but should the students involved have been punished for them? Is this a free speech issue?

The other tricky thing about free speech is that, when you peel away all the deep philosophizing, the reality is that it often comes down to your political beliefs. People seem to get more incensed when something they passionately believe in is being censored compared to when it’s something they don’t particularly support. For example, if you’re an ardent feminist, you may frankly not get that worked up about the “men’s rights” advocate who gets shouted down at a conference. Or, if you’re a defender of the State of Israel, you may not lose sleep over the shutdown on campus of Israel Apartheid Week.

Who are the people behind the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms? Well, let’s just say they’re more the type to subscribe to the opinions of the National Post than the Toronto Star, to use a bit of shorthand. So, depending on which of these two newspapers you favour, you may already have an inkling of how you feel about this group.

How did Canada’s universities do in the freedom index? Not so well, it seems. Using a five-letter scale – A, B, C, D and F – the Campus Freedom Index graded universities and their student unions on their stated policies (what they say) and their practices (what they do). Thus, each university received four letter grades for each of university policies, university practices, student union policies, and student union practices.

With 45 campuses graded, that comes to 180 letter grades awarded in total. Only six of those were A grades, compared to 32 F’s – 13 to universities and 19 to student unions. The Campus Freedom Index also assigned 19 B’s, 80 C’s and 43 D’s.

In the majority of cases, the transgressions had to do with restrictions on anti-abortion (or pro-life, if you will) activities. Of the 13 F grades awarded to universities for their practices, seven fell into this category. Likewise, eight of the 15 F grades awarded to student associations for their practices were for restrictions on pro-life groups. Controversies surrounding “Israel Apartheid Week” also were cited several times.

At 251 pages in length, the campus freedom index report is certainly comprehensive, and I commend the organization for bringing attention to the issues involved. But I must admit I just don’t know what to think about its overall import. Your own opinion may just depend on where you sit on the political spectrum.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Alex Usher / September 24, 2013 at 15:13

    I dunno Leo. I don;t think it;s a where-you-stand thing at all. I think that organizations which champion themselves as havens of free thought and freedom of an academic kind need to take this kind of critique very, very seriously.

  2. SC / September 26, 2013 at 12:49

    The JCCF is certainly not an independent unbiased organization- a brief look through its website woul show its true colours- very right-wing, social conservative would be my opinion.
    Just check out these pages and decide for yourself before endorsing them:

    I for one don’t need Mrozek or Levant telling me what freedoms I can have (or have not).

    Don’t mean to be rude but this needed to be said.

  3. Noel Roy / September 27, 2013 at 22:34

    Well, I’m not impressed. At one point, they say that Memorial University of Newfoundland Is tied as one of the best universities in the country. Two paragraphs later, Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the worst provinces for campus free speech.

    Newfoundland and Labrador has exactly one university.

    How do you spell “coherence” ?

  4. Mark Mercer / October 3, 2013 at 06:05

    Certainly, many people will call for freedom of expression only when what they themselves want to hear is under threat. That’s not true of everyone, though. Many of us support freedom of expression as a civil liberty for all. Does Leo mean in this posting to endorse the idea that when right-wingers expose threats to or denials of freedom of expression, we should be suspicious?