Half of Canadian universities fail at free speech: report

Abortion, Israel and men’s issues are hot topics on campus


A free speech wall by Carleton University's Students for Liberty club

Universities are supposed to be safe places to debate controversial ideas but school administrators and students leaders would sometimes prefer instead to enforce their own points of view, even if it means silencing others.

As a result, the limits of free speech are frequently debated on campus. This week it’s at the University of Manitoba where a pro-life group is showing photos comparing abortion to the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide. Student Ashley James told the Winnipeg Free Press that it’s preventing her from focusing at school.

One can bet where the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms would stand. They want controversial speech protected. According to their 2013 Campus Freedom Index, released Tuesday, 23 of the 45 universities graded this year have failed to stop censorship. Each administration and student union was assigned two A to F letter grades, one based on policies and the other on practices. Their conclusion: “Our country’s institutions of higher education have failed in their promise to uphold the sanctity of free speech in its most cherished and necessary form: the discussion of controversial ideas, frank and spirited debate, and the pursuit of truth.”

Make what you will of that conclusion, the index offers a good summary of the tension on campus.

The most common limits on free speech cited in the report were those placed on anti-abortion groups by student unions. The report quotes the Trent Central Students Association’s strange explanation for rejecting a pro-life club: “Campaigning for pro life or pro choice [sic] is not allowed on campus… since there is [sic] so many opinions to this it can lead to a very exclusive group, while all groups at Trent must be inclusive.” It also quotes the Brandon University Students’ Union which said it wouldn’t certify a pro-life group because, “[it] would be redundant since the Women’s Collective deals with all gender issues.” Student unions also hindered pro-life groups at York, Memorial, Calgary, Guelph and Lakehead, to name a few. On the other hand, the University of British Columbia administration got an “A” after it lifted restrictions on the pro-life club Lifeline.

A newcomer to the free speech debate is “men’s issues” after the University of Toronto Students’ Union and the Ryerson Students’ Union both outlawed men’s issues awareness clubs this year. The UTSU claimed such groups “harass women.” The RSU called one a “hate group.” The University of Toronto’s administration, however, was the only one to receive an “A” for its policies, which helped maintain relative calm when a men’s issues group hosted an anti-feminist lecture.

Another perennial issue is the Arab-Israeli conflict. The University of Manitoba Students’ Union got an “F” this year after removing official status from Students Against Israeli Apartheid, which they said discriminated against “zionists.” Wilfrid Laurier University’s administration also got an “F” after removing what they saw as offensive Israeli Apartheid Week posters. McGill University’s student union was failed for forcing an Israeli student club to change the name of an event.

Among the universities to get an “F” was Queen’s, whose administration made national news after they sanctioned tearing down a paper “free speech wall” because it contained “offensive content.” It turns out that wall was sponsored by JCCF so don’t be surprised if it’s tacked up once more.


Half of Canadian universities fail at free speech: report

  1. Terrible methodology once again. Every year the Campus Freedom Index publishes this poorly put together report with loads of outdated information and inaccuracies.

    Campus free speech is an important issue and deserves better than a poorly researched report.

    • Chris, I challenge you to find report where universities will come off better. You will also have to prove all your other accusations against the CFI report’s credibility, i.e., that it’s “terrible methodology,” “poorly put together,” “outdated information” and “inaccuracies.” I read the report, and I don’t agree with you on even one of these claims–which puts your unsupported claims in question. My guess is that you’re trying to play down the kinds of injustices universities commit–are you afraid that sane, thinking, fair-minded people are increasingly seeing that the first and most fundamental right of all human beings is the right to be born (i.e., the pro-life position)? And that there is a virulent contempt of the pro-life cause socialized into the masses and gullible college students?

  2. Glad to see this issue getting attention. The student unions and faculty and administration ideologues are acting like an intimidating little mafia on a lot of campuses. It´s not about what I believe or what you believe. It´s about standing up against bullies that silence dissent.

  3. “[it] would be redundant since the Women’s Collective deals with all gender issues.”
    This was in respect of Pro-Life issues, but notice the relevance it has to the men’s issues issues.

    And the insistence that interest groups must not accidentally exclude people – words fail.

  4. How depressing! Here I thought that it was mainly politicians who were afraid of the dissemination and discussion of opinions (and facts) that run contrary to their own ideological stands. Oh, Canada!!

  5. On this subject, a comment I wrote about the Gilmour affair. Sorry, but I can’t figure out DISQUS yet. So here it is.

    Due to the woeful lack of factual information on this story, I am suspicious of many of the snitty, personal, and childish comments from, dare I assume, university students. If this is the case, I’d rather you were merely “trolls”, for many of the posts are indicative of such quality. You seem impervious to the fact that universities proclaim themselves to be “bastions of free speech” – what part of “free speech” don’t you comprehend? The man spoke his mind. He wasn’t hateful and no one was hurt. Maybe some of you are not yet ready for free speech.

    You, also, seem impervious to the fact that in order to present a variety of choices to students, they must have profs/instructors who specialise. For professors, it’s part of the process for obtaining a Ph.D.. Professors tend to teach their specialty, in order to present a quality product. Get it?

    Hearing freely-spoken ideas allows you to grow mentally and philosophically and to question or critique or debate in an erudite manner. You will not agree with all you hear, or what you say as your POV may change as you mature. Making snippy, personal remarks only cheapens you. Some posters have achieved this stage of maturity, and I am gratified, as such. So let’s drop the feminist rhetoric and manufactured indignation, and self-pity, and grow up. If you think he is “full of himself”, that is an opinion and it may be shared with others – but so were many profs/instructors I’ve met. Questioning his taste in literature is fruitless – just like criticising other’s choices – some frown heavily upon romance novels or science fiction. Who cares?

    If other members of the English Department take umbrage with his statements, let them speak up, or… forever hold their peace and quit gossiping.

    I am disappointed in Emma, whose journalism I generally admire, and respect for being a “breath of fresh air” for not being more objective and doing more research. She has fallen into the “poor-me-I’m-a- female” trap. She’s gay (so what) but there are gay/lesbian author courses are there not? Do these instructors hate other writers? I think not.

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