Campus free speech advocates are celebrating today, thanks to University of Calgary graduates Steven and Keith Pridgen, 22, and their unwillingness to accept their alma mater’s punishments.
The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld on Wednesday a ruling that the twin brothers were wrongfully punished for criticizing Aruna Mitra, their law professor, in 2007 Facebook postings.
The university put them on six months probation until they agreed to write a written apology for the statements, which the dean had deemed defamatory after a complaint from Mitra.
The brothers argued that they weren’t given a chance to defend the postings as fair comment.
The University of Calgary argued that, as a private institution with institutional indepence and the need to uphold academic freedom, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its attendant right to free speech, do not apply. The Charter was enacted to limit governments’ actions, after all. The Association of Universities and Colleges intervened to support the university’s arguments.
In the end, all three judges sided with the Pridgens. One went so far as to rule that the Charter does indeed extend to universities. “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to the disciplinary proceedings undertaken by the University,” wrote Justice M. Paperny.
Justice B. McDonald wrote: “While it may be time to reconsider whether or not universities are subject to the Charter, it was unnecessary for the judicial review judge to do so in this case. And, in my respectful view, this Court ought not to compound that error by undertaking such an analysis now.”
Justice B. O’Ferrall wrote: “One of the reasons I believe the decision was unreasonable was that no consideration was given to the students’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. However, in my view, the issue in this case is not whether the University is a “Charter-free zone”.”
The university hasn’t said whether it will pursue the matter in Canada’s highest court. “If this goes to the Supreme Court of Canada and it upholds the decision, then it’s good news for campus free speech,” John Carpay of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms told National Post.