It’s finally happened. Seven months from the start of the 2010 Olympics, and the first full-blown free speech controversy at the University of British Columbia is finally upon us. The main point of contention rests on restrictions the Vancouver Organizing Committee and UBC plan to impose on commercial signage in student residences.
None of this comes as a surprise, frankly. The balance between effective security, enforcement of International Olympic Committee regulations, and suppression of rights was always going to be a huge issue at the university for a number of reasons:
- The UBC Winter Sports Centre is hosting the men’s and women’s hockey games, not to mention the entire Paralympics hockey tournament a month later. It’s going to cause major disruptions on campus: Month-long road closures, limited access to fields for students, a two-week reading break leading to an compressed April exam schedule, among other things. It’s going to be anything but business as usual for UBC students.
- You might have heard of that whole “academic freedom” thing that’s all the rage at universities. But kidding aside, the symbolic nature of thousands of security personnel potentially infringing on the rights of students to show their disapproval with the Olympics is enough to make a P.R.-savvy protester salivate.
- There’s also the APEC factor. Almost all Vancouverites remember the infamous 1997 international summit held at UBC, during which hundreds of protesters were pepper-sprayed by police and scores of students were arrested (both during and leading up to the summit), which spurred an extensive public hearing into the overreach of the RCMP that didn’t culminate until 2002.
That being said, this current mini-controversy is being blown out way out of proportion. The clause in UBC’s residence contract bans signage that is either a competitor of an Olympic sponsor, or creates a “false or unauthorized commercial association with the Olympics.” Sounds draconian, right?
Well hold on. The rule only applies if your sign is “in a place that is visible from the Thunderbird Winter Sports Centre or the overlay facilities constructed by VANOC adjacent to the Thunderbird Winter Sports Centre.”
For the record, the Thunderbird Winter Sports Centre is surrounded by fields, a parking lot, a tennis court, market housing, and a fraternity village. If you’re being extremely generous, there may be close to 50 students — tops — who might be affected. That isn’t to say this shouldn’t be an issue. Students should wonder whether or not the university will be heavy-handed in enforcing restrictions on campus. But if you assume the administration wants to work with students in the coming months to ensure a peaceful and open campus during the games, attacking the university at this point seems counter productive.