Student handbook censored for excessive crane jokes

View the content deemed too “inflammatory” for graduate students at UBC


The Graduate Student Society at the University of British Columbia has recalled 7,000 handbooks — worth $20,000 — for being too inflammatory, according to the Globe and Mail.

The Grad Student Society (GSS) called an emergency meeting last Wednesday about the handbooks. In an email a few hours later, UBC student Nate Crompton, who was hired to design the handbook, was requested to return all copies to the GSS. The email, from GSS president Mona Maghsoodi, said that some content had been found to be “inappropriate.”

Crompton told the Globe that he didn’t believe the handbook was inflammatory, calling it “satire.”

The book contains many references to cranes, an apparent jab at the university for its massive development that includes upscale condos. One joke reads, “UBC development is devoted to bringing you the most number of cranes per tuition dollar you spend. UBC promises that for every extra crane, one less letter will be written to the Province requesting adequate funding for the University.”

The book also questions why UBC is celebrating its centenary when classes weren’t taught at UBC until 1915.  “In the heady prelude to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, the University cannot wait for its students because the ‘Centenary of 2015’ is too far away.”

Another piece that may have upset the GSS is that on the campus map the authors marked where UBC president Stephen Toope’s “$15 million house” is located.

Scott Macrae, UBC public affairs director, said that the university was not at all involved in the GSS’ decision.

Only 100 handbooks were handed out before the recall. In her email to Crompton, Maghsoodi requested, “Please make sure that the copies are kept confidential, otherwise the GSS may face critical consequences.”

Luckily, we’ve got a copy! Check out UBC’s alternative history by right clicking here and choosing save link as. (Warning large 10MB PDF file)

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Student handbook censored for excessive crane jokes

  1. Well I guess future GSS execs will be scrupulous about reviewing student handbooks before they go out the door from now on…

  2. Amongst the hats I wear is that of a PhD student at UBC (and an employee of the UBC Graduate Student Society many years ago).

    With my grad student hat on, I’ve looked through the PDF version of the handbook in question. Although it’s not really my cup of tea, it’s exactly what the editors say it is: critical, cynical and satirical. It doesn’t portray various events in UBC’s history in the way I would have, but that’s the point the editors are trying to make.

    I suspect, although I don’t know, the Graduate Student Society either didn’t anticipate what might come from giving the editors a free hand or that what initially seemed okay to them became unacceptable when some people complained about the content.

    If nothing else, this should result in the UBC GSS being clearer about their publication policies and practices in the future.

  3. I am a member of the UBC GSS as well as the UBC SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). This is another embarrassment in a long series of embarrassments for the UBC GSS. The creation and publication of the handbook is exclusively under the executive portfolio of the Vice President for Student Services. This person was elected by the grad student body. For the other execs to step in and physically stop distribution is actually against the societies own constitution and bylaws. They say they are afraid of getting sued and that that is their motivation for suppressing the document. They cite the 15 million dollar estimate of Toope’s mansion as a factual error (if anything this is a lowball estimate; right?) that could be construed as libel. Many suspect the executives are doing so to make the higher admin happy in order to salvage whatever social and political capital they have garnered personally in student politics.

    Any way you slice it, it is censorship. Thursday is the emergency council meeting to discuss the issue. While it is open to the student population, and the public too I suppose, chances are the council will go “in camera” and force everyone not on council to leave the chambers. Then they’ll decide to suppress it, then… well maybe a good old fashioned book-burning.

    Thanks for publishing the document. It gives an important account of the history of activism on UBC campus.

  4. When most spoofs created by student publications focus excessively on sex (and sexist) humor, this kind of university politics satire seems at least refreshing. Of course, the issue here is probably more that the GSS was worried about the idea of it being in the handbook, because it’s the first public “face” the students get of their students’ union. So it’s more a PR question than a legal question, I would say, any student newspaper should be able to put this kind of satire and not be censored.

  5. I don’t have an opinion on the handbook or its contents, but how is it censorship? If your job is to write content for somebody else, they have every right to do what they wish with that content. The GSS owns the copyright, not the writers. It’s neither journalism nor an academic paper so classic claims of censorship or entirely irrelevant.

  6. As Ed Durgan mentioned, the name of the Vice President for Student Services is Rodrigo Ferrari Nunes. He is a totally irresponsible guy and he almost screw the 2008 Graduate Student Orientation. Check out the GSS website: gss.ubc.ca , and you can see lots of “Crane Jokes” in the site. Enjoy!

  7. Yeah, I agree, to call this censorship seems to be a bit much. The question is what is the intended purpose of the handbook. I don’t know much about the history of the GSS, and maybe this is how they do handbooks, but it seems there are more appropriate ways to communicate the perspective presented in the handbook. In any event, it is all very funny.

  8. I am fascinated by those denying that this is censorship. They seem to lack the most basic understanding of what counts as censorship. Or perhaps they are not familiar with the English language.

    Censorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful or sensitive, as determined by a censor. There is no precedent for the claims of the commenter above that “true” censorship requires the material to be published as journalism or academic work. That is sheer nonsense.

    This is obviously and clearly censorship. There is no controversy about whether it counts as “censorship” or not (any more than whether this is a “website” or not).

    The only meaningful question is whether the censorship was justified or not. To question whether it is “censorship” because one thinks it is justified censorship is to completely confuse the issue. That is like saying that justified torture is not really “torture”.

    I think these people’s denials that this counts as censorship reveal that, deep down, they realize that keeping the truth from people is inherently wrong. But, for some reason, they just don’t want to admit that that is what’s happening here.

  9. There was once a book without flare, no content, grammatical mistakes, wrong deadlines, and posturing by vain and bully-like executives…
    It made no difference to anyone, a bland agenda nobody dared to use because it was so ugly.

    Now things are different. There’s some satire and truth now, and some of the conservatives from repressive backgrounds are afraid of free speech. Don’t take a stance, just conform and carry on, it’s better for you. Come to class and don’t look around. Live in the lab, measuring and testing, and do your job right. Don’t screw up, be a robot, conform, automaton.

    Ignore student media. Don’t be involved. It is not worth the hassle to risk yourself, you know, your career. If you have challenging questions you better express them in the language of conformity. Do you believe this? One challenges by taking strong positions on important issues in a public way. Shock will raise awareness, students. Don’t conform to expensive textbooks and 500 people 3rd year courses. Show them that you matter. You are not ‘the brightest and the best’, grad students. Get over your pride and rejoice with the student body the fact that we are all still students and able to reach out to the world and have voice. A booooooming voice this time, thanks to the media of this country, taking freedom of speech forward, fearless.

    If you want any change you have to inhabit the dominant structure and break its rules and make it relevant.

    When you realize later in the term that UBC is a construction yard, has too many cars, too many cranes, too many parking lots, not enough affordable housing, too many luxury market housing condos, too many ornamental plants and no edible landscapes, you won’t be fooled, and Diogenes’ message will make sense to you.

  10. Sounds like the withdrawal of the handbook will be more damaging to the GSS than the well-targeted and refreshing satire could ever be. Taking satirical shots at the often questionable and outrightly absurd construction plans of Canada’s universities is the very least student unions should be doing in proposing alternatives in how post-secondary funds should be allocated.

    Unless there is evidence of meddling by the UBC administration in getting this censored, it’s yet another blow against student unionism. Then again, the Globe and other mainstream (especially CanWest) papers are quite interested in publicizing, often inaccurately, the controversies surrounding various students unions.

  11. I’m sorry if I’m going to step in as a stodgy old law student, but this is only “censorship” in the sense that not pointing out your aunt seems to have gained 30 pounds is censorship. It’s self-censorship. There’s no question in my mind that the GSS @ UBC has the power and right to censor itself if it wishes to. Whether it should or not is a separate question, but it’s absurd to deploy the bogeyman of institutional censorship as an argument in this case. The GSS is only grappling with a question that every individual and every institution confronts every day. It may be funny. It may even be true. But that doesn’t mean that saying it out loud is a good idea, for any number of reasons.

    I opened the PDF and the first thing I found is a long section explaining about how UBC is designed to serve “Global Capitalism” with various connections about power and privilege drawn in there. Is this true? Certainly from some perspectives. But it also smacks very strongly of a firm ideological position. It isn’t a point I’d be offended by if it came up in a pub, but I wouldn’t expect to find it in my student handbook. The message it would send to me, if I were a graduate student at UBC, is that my student society is more interested in promoting their ideological cause than there are in providing information or services.

    I don’t know what reasoning went on in the back room of the GSS @ UBC. But if I were on the board that publication would embarrass me. Not because it’s wrong or necessarily libelous (I haven’t read it that closely) but just because it’s ideology disguised as a student handbook. There’s a place for that debate, certainly, but I don’t feel a student handbook designed to serve and orient all students is that place. It’s a hell of an expensive decision to make, but I might have made that same one.

    To reply to Ed, I’m virtually certain you are wrong to suggest that simply because this exists under the portfolio of one VP the organization as a whole has no control over it. Organizationally the buck always stops at the board. There’s no way around the fact they are ultimately responsible for the organization, which means they have the power (as a unit) to decide almost anything – you can’t hold people responsible (legally, even potentially financially) for an organization over which they have no control. Again, whether they should have made this decision is another issue, but we might as well be clear about the legal realities.

  12. Mavaddat, does it take effort to be so obtuse?

    I was making an exception for journalism and academia as fields where being the copyright holder may not be sufficient ground to deny publishing something because those fields are expected to be involved in the search for, and exposure of, truth. But now I won’t even go that far. In journalism, news stories are stopped every day by desk editors and managing editors for a variety of reasons. Journalists that don’t like it can take their stories elsewhere but the fact that a journalist wrote a story does not require a newspaper to publish it, for whatever reason they want. They own the copyright and they are exercising the right to not send out copies.

    The freedom of academics flows from their own ownership of the copyright for their work. But nobody has a problem if an academic chooses not to publish a paper that they wrote.

    The GSS owns the copyright here. They paid for it to be published. I highly doubt the editors got to maintain the copyright for their work. And even if they did, I highly doubt they gave any consideration to the GSS to require the GSS to spend their money to publish it. The GSS gets to do with whatever it wants to the handbook.

    And Diogenes – I’m sure that felt clever, but seriously, try to inject a little truth. In the past ten years approximately 10,000 fewer cars are driving to UBC every day and bus ridership has increased by 185%. Acres of parking lots have been destroyed.

    But of course, why should balance get involved in the discussion now? It clearly didn’t affect the editors that saw this project as their own, personal Speaker’s Corner.

  13. “Say WHAAT?!”, You confirmed exactly what I was saying in my post. Namely, that you are concerned to show that this was justified censorship, not that it was “not censorship”. I am satisfied merely to have brought some clarity into your life. No need to thank me. As to whether it takes effort to be so obtuse, I will have to defer to your expertise on that matter.

    Jeff Rybak, you would be right about labelling this as “self-censorship” if the GSS was acting with one unified will. It’s not. The executive gave full rights to the editorial board to publish this handbook, and then reversed their decision after it came back from the presses. They were overseeing the project for the entire time and could have pulled the plug weeks or months in advance, but chose to wait until it was too late to do anything about (except completely withhold the books). So no, this is not self-censorship. This is the GSS executive versus the editors. The interests of the students is what’s at stake here.

    As far as the imperative of handbooks to be free of ideological causes, since when does this principle hold? Are students supposed to be silent on injustices simply because they don’t want to ruffle the feathers of their fellow complacent students? I remember a man once said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Are you that good, silent majority?

    Do not stop speaking of truth when you find an ideology. Go further! Think about whether the ideologies themselves are true. Then only you will have some ground on which to think clearly about this case.

  14. Mavaddat, your last post was clarifying and I’m going to admit that you’re right. From a strict dictionary sense, this is censorship.

    That said, the last line of your first post was a normative statement about the nature of censorship, implying that all censorship is necessarily bad or unjust. The owner of a copyright does not answer to you nor should s/he answer to anyone. If you believe you have the right to use public pressure to stop self-censorship, the flipside is you would have the right to use public pressure to induce self-censorship and I cannot accept that.

    From the perspective of ensuring liberty in a society, specifically freedom of speech and the press, the only relevant discussion of censorship is the attempts of outside actors to exert pressure on copyright holders to go against what the copyright holder sees to be in their best interests.

  15. If I submit a letter to the editor that is incoherent drivel, and I don’t get published, am I being censored? If, say, Macleans commissions me to write a profile about Jeff Rybak, you know he has a book and all, and I go way beyond and write about his lovelife and how he never use to listen to his mother, and then my article is rejected, is that censorship? I guess both of these are censorship, if we take freedom of speech to be the right to be heard, meaning the right for others to provide us with space and resources to be heard, then I guess, in a sort of banal and meaningless way I would have been censored.

    Mavaddat wrote: “Are students supposed to be silent on injustices simply because they don’t want to ruffle the feathers of their fellow complacent students?”

    I’m not really sure what this point means. Is it being suggested that because the student handbook was recalled that students are therefore not permitted to pronounce on such issues? Are they prevented from standing in the student centre and handing out a different publication but with the same material? Is the Ubyssey prevented from publishing this material if it CHOOSES? Are students prevented from discussing these issues in the hallway? Or from inviting speakers to the university who will make similar points?

    My guess is not, just because, one venue, and what is clearly not the appropriate venue, didn’t permit the publication of this or that opinion does not mean anything at all has been censored. The only censorship that means anything is censorship from the state, but demanding that you be given space to say whatever you want and then crying censorship when such space is denied is a bizarre contortion.

  16. Maybe another way to rephrase what Carson’s point:

    “The only censorship that means anything is censorship from the state”

    would be

    “Only the state can suppress freedom of speech.” That proposition avoids the semantic debate about what censorship means to bring it back to a discussion on rights and freedoms. Carson is right that freedom of speech does not equal being entitled to other people’s resources to disseminate one’s message.

    However, I also remember that there has been a lot of debate about student unions who refuse to give resources to clubs who are against the legality of abortion. This is not a violation of freedom of speech per se, as Carson noted. Yet there is still room for debate, because the resources of the student unions ultimately belong to all students, and they are all equally entitled, a priori, to use them according to the policies governing their use.

    From my perspective, developing policies to oversee the use of collectively-owned resources is a necessity in that case. One such policy might be to limit ideological content in the handbook. Another one might conditions for a club to get funding. In all cases, what we’re debating here (and what people have been debating on the abortion issue) is not so much rights and freedoms as the appropriate use of our collectively-owned resources.

  17. Folks, we’re getting confused. Let’s be very clear about this: The GSS is a democratically-elected institution filled by students for students. Its mandate is to represent the students of UBC. It is not a corporation, or a private club, or a special interest group. It is a public committee of a public institution with responsibilities to the students.

    So all this talk of self-censorship and not “being entitled to other people’s resources” simply does not apply, because it’s not “other people’s” resources that are stake here and the GSS is supposed to act on behalf of the students. Therefore, it does not “have a right” to keep from the students what is in their best interest. On the contrary, it has a duty to provide the students with whatever content is in their interest.

    This argument is corroborated by the reasoning of the GSS in (attempting) to justify their censorship. Notice that they never claim the executive privilege or mere right to censor the material. Rather, they argue in terms of what would be (ostensibly) damaging to the student population as a whole (even if it is by proxy of damaging the GSS). If the people here were correct about their right to “self-censorship”, why wouldn’t that be the line that the GSS took to defend their decision? It would be, but it isn’t.

    So this isn’t a matter of a private institution having the right to do with its publications what it wants. This is a matter of a public institution owing a duty of providing the truth (of injustices) to the public it is supposed to represent.

  18. To reply to Mavaddat – I don’t think we actually disagree at all. We’re just adopting different assumptions regarding how the GSS does or does not view it’s obligation to reflect the interests of graduate students at UBC. If it views its interests (as I might) as including a certain obligation to not buy controversy where it isn’t needed, and instead to focus on the good it can do in practical terms for its members, the it makes perfect sense to not put out a handbook such as the one under discussion. If it views, as you suggest, its obligation as one to expose the various “truths” (only in quotations in case they are disputed) you adopt, then of course it might want to allow that handbook to proceed.

    My point is not to declare my view is correct – only that it’s valid. There’s at least one perfectly valid rationale to pull the handbook, that has only to do with pragmatism and a desire to perform the representative function properly. There’s also at least one valid reason to keep it. I hope and expect the GSS probably had this issue out in some detail.

    My main point, from a legal sense, is that this isn’t censorship. You may doubt this fact, but I’m virtually certain the GSS is a not-for-profit corporation. Certainly every student union I know is organized as such. This status comes with certain rights and certain obligations. The point at which the GSS at UBC attempts to control what private students or other individuals say is the point at which this becomes censorship. So long as they stay confined to dictating what people can say on behalf of the GSS and with their funds and publications – that simply isn’t censorship. It’s just a policy decision – whether a good or a bad one.

    This isn’t remotely a complex or obtuse point. Your right to freedom of expression doesn’t entitle you to a platform or to funding. The group that provides your platform (even Macleans.ca that provides me with a blog) may pull it without notice, and your finding may be revoked without warning. You’re free to express yourself on your own behalf. The GSS is equally free to control what goes into its student handbook. I may or may not agree with this particular decision, but I’ll defend to my last breath the rationale that entitled the board to make it.

  19. Jeff, I think we have even more common ground than you indicated. The disagreement between us is not about starting assumptions; I agree with you that the GSS is entitled to not “buy controversy where it isn’t needed”. Where we disagree is about whether this controversy is needed. My point is that the publication of this handbook would very much be in the best interest of the students and the GSS, controversy or not. In fact, it is more important to publish it if there will be controversy.

    Where I think you are fundamentally confused is in attributing a will and interest to the GSS that is distinct from the will and interest of the student body. This is highlighted when you say things like, “If [the GSS] views its interests as including a certain […] focus on the good it can do […] for its members, the [sic] it makes perfect sense to not put out a handbook such as the one under discussion.” But this is profoundly wrong. It would be like saying that the government of Canada has interests that are quite apart from the interests of the people. But this contradicts the fundamental assumption of a liberal democracy, which demands the representation solely of the people by the government. Where a government institution fails to meet this principle, it is summarily reprimanded and disciplined. Consider the fate of one Jack Abramoff and his minions in the U.S. Congress.

    I believe that people a responsibility foremost to truth and justice before their own self-interests. Perhaps this is where we part ways. But if this is so, the argument parts ways from you as well, as the duty of the GSS is, as stated in its charter, to represent the interests of the students, first and foremost, and not to save itself from the scrutiny of sponsors, politicians, or university faculty.

  20. I had an additional thought. I think that one reason we seem to be talking past one another is that you are speaking about “rights” and “entitlement” whereas I am talking about imperatives and moral obligation.

    A person may have a right to abstain from some action that they are morally obligated to perform or perform an action that they are morally obligated to avoid.

    The right to not incriminate oneself in a court of law might contradict one’s moral imperatives (to reveal who committed a murder, let’s say). Many also consider the right to self-preservation to be a basic right. However, there are conceivable cases where total self-preservation contradicts one’s moral duties. Consider the case of the fictional character Joseph Schindler in the movie “Schindler’s List”. Or more concretely, consider any sacrifice that individuals make for the greater good. Some may consider these supererogatory actions (not acting under duty), but I think that at least in some cases they are not.

    So in sum, I think that while you may be right that the GSS may technically have a right to self-preservation even when it contradicts the will of the students (although I would even dispute this), it seems to me obvious that they do not have the ethical grounds to do so.

  21. I just have a few points.

    1. How is it possible that the GSS executive voting to withhold the agenda is against students wishes? They were elected by students, and entrusted with the right to act in the students best interest. Thus, a majority of the GSS represents (barring a referendum or new election) the will of the students.

    2. Mavaddat, your argument in effect is that you believe that what is written is the truth and that the truth must be gotten out. You are not speaking with the will of the graduate students, or if you are, you have no evidence that you are. Yes, it may be possible that those points in the agenda are things people should read (I tend to disagree, but that just further strengthens my point), but you don’t have the right to say that students. Just because ONE executive thought it was something that should be printed does not mean that the majority of students agree, in fact, all evidence available says they don’t.

    3. The GSS was silly to entrust Rodrigo and Crompton to do this agenda. Their politics is well known, they are ‘radicals’ (to use a nice word), and everyone knows that. Had the GSS had some degree of common sense, they should have sought oversight of the project from the beginning.

    Seriously though, I’m baffled by the concept that people are arguing that withholding the agenda violates students will, what evidence could their possibly be considering the vote of a majority of the elected officials says to withhold the agendas?

  22. My argument is not that withholding the handbook is against students’ wishes. The students have not seen the handbook, so they don’t have an opinion on whether it’s appropriate. Moreover, no one has surveyed them to find out what they think, even if they had seen it. So that’s not my argument.

    Rather, my argument is that the withholding of the handbook is against the students’ interests. I have argued for this above. It is in the interest of the students to be exposed to a little controversy and critical thought, even if they ultimately disagree with it. Sorry that you might not like that, but university is the place where critical examination of our fundamental ideas happens. It is not the place where students are sheltered from “ideology” or maxims that contradict what they have been taught all their lives. If you want to live complacently, either do not attend university or keep your head down and your mind closed. If you take the latter route, then you will never see the handbook anyway, so much for the better.

    I was at the GSS council meeting last night and the reasoning they were appealing to in order to withhold the handbook was that it would A) compromise the sponsorship of the advertisers, and B) cause offence to some students.

    None of these take any account of the will of the students. As I said, no one knows the will of the students, so the argument must be about what is their interest.

    Incidentally, the vast majority of the GSS council voted to release the handbook and the motion to keep if from the students was almost unanimously voted down. So if “a majority of the GSS represents the will of the students,” how does this fact change your opinion?

  23. Mavaddat – I can’t agree with your suggestion that because the GSS represents students (true) and because the Government of Canada represents Canadians (also true) that either body can, should, or could ever even try to do what every student or Canadian wants. Obviously there will always be a variety of divergent interests in play. You elect people to try to balance those interests. And the result is inevitably a compromise of some kind.

    You seem to feel that “truth” (and quite frankly, I dare you to defend most of what’s in that handbook as objective truth – some of it may be well presented but it’s hardly beyond dispute) is the uppermost value in any context. You’re free to believe that. I’m sure some students at UBC agree. But I happen to not agree. And I’m also sure there are students at UBC who don’t agree. So the GSS made a decision – which is what you elect them to do. You can sprinkle your talk liberally with references to democratic principles all you want but really you’re just the voter who’s saying “I elected you to represent me – now do exactly what I want!” That always has been and always will be an irrational understanding of democracy. Democracy is about balancing conflicting views and finding compromise. You can’t start from the assumption that you get to dictate which values and agendas trump which other values and agendas.

    You can agree or disagree with what I’m about to end off with. I wish to emphasize these are my ideas regarding effective student advocacy. I present them only to illustrate there are perfectly rational reasons, founded in a firm desire to represent students, that could easily motivate the GSS to pull this calendar with the best interests (subjective speaking) of students in mind. Most of what the GSS can really do for its members occurs on campus – and much of it includes negotiation with professors and administrators. Tomorrow, for example, some poor PhD student may end up in a terrible conflict with his or her supervisor, and may need representation to help straighten that out. I’m sure if that happens (and it eventually will) that student will want a representative organization that is taken seriously by the administration, and not one that’s just finished making a fool of itself.

    You may think that shouldn’t matter. You may choose to believe that administration will always listen to the students’ union simply because it must – but as someone who’s done that job I prefer to live in the real world. People judge you by your actions. If you act like a goof today people are going to remember that tomorrow. And personally (again, my own choice) I prefer to spend my ammunition on the battles I can win, rather than piss off everyone in sight over stupid issues and then wonder why no one’s listening when something serious comes up.

    You’re free to agree or disagree with my values and priorities, and my idea of how to best represent the interests (as you emphasize) of students. But please, respect my right to establish my own values and priorities, and try to acknowledge they are as valid as your own. The line of reasoning that you’ve followed, where you’re willing to participate in a democracy but only so long as you get to establish the values and assumptions that everyone else must live by, is simply unsupportable.

  24. Incidentally, I don’t normally make such corrections, but the man’s name was Oskar Schindler and he isn’t fictional.

  25. Pingback: Crane jokes get the green light : Macleans OnCampus

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