Free speech under attack in colleges and high schools

Schools should be teaching students how to participate in society, not giving lessons in petty tyranny

Should high school students have the right to free speech in school? Well, a Toronto school doesn’t think so. They suspended a student in late November after he failed to abide by the instructions of a teacher assigned to censor a speech he was to give at an assembly.

Emil Cohen was a member of the Northern Secondary School soccer team and was asked to make a speech about the team at an assembly celebrating the school’s athletics. He isn’t happy with the way the school treats the soccer team. He says they had to find their own coach and he doesn’t like that the football team gets priority when it comes to using the school’s field. But there was a problem, the school wanted him to give a positive speech and so the teacher who was assigned to review his draft ordered him to cut the critical parts. He didn’t.

It is not unreasonable for a high school to require students to have speeches vetted by teachers before they are given, if the intention is to ensure that the remarks are appropriate, but to have a censor edit a speech to ensure that it is consistent with the administration’s message is unacceptable in a free society.

The Toronto District School Board has backed the school’s move. “The issue here is not the speech itself,” superintendent, Ian Allison told the Toronto Star. “The issue is there was a process and he didn’t follow through.”

I’m not buying it. It looks far more like some wannabe dictator, who doesn’t like criticism, took multiple steps in an effort to silence dissent than a school applying a consistent rule.

I can only wonder what kind of repercussions the students who protested against Cohen’s suspension today will face on Monday.

Even if one is to accept Allison’s claim that Cohen is only being disciplined for failing to follow the process, any process that would demand a student lie to his colleagues about his opinions on a legitimate issue at his school has no place in Canadian schools.

High schools have a critical role in ensuring that young Canadians are prepared to be engaged citizens in our free society. I’m not the first person to think that they’re failing that duty. But maybe part of the problem is administrators like Northern principal Varla Abrams, who would probably be better suited to running a school in Pyongyang than Toronto.

Sadly, Abrams’ actions might be legal. While the courts have established that secondary schools are government, so the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does apply, they have found that schools have a duty to ensure order which may allow actions that would otherwise be considered violations of Charter rights.

However, the far majority of cases related to Charter rights in secondary schools deal with search and seizure, not speech. It could be argued that the school overstepped it’s bounds when it comes to maintaining order. Cohen’s speech did not affect the school’s ability to properly teach students, only their ability to paint a rosy picture of the athletics program.

This sort of petty tyranny may not limited to this school. Here in Quebec two CEGEP students were suspended for handing out pamphlets at a school event. However this case is not quite as cut and dry as the situation in Toronto. This incident seems to have far more to do with where the pamphlets were handed out than what they said. As well, the facts of the case are in question, with the administration and the suspended students having very different versions of the course of events.

According to administrators at Bois de Boulogne college, in Montreal’s north end, the students were offered space at the event to hand out their pamphlets but refused the offer and continued to pamphleteer. The students say that while the school did offer them a table at the event, they were told that they could not pamphleteer there. They also claim that the majority of the pamphleteering was done off school property.

The students are taking the school to court and it will be interesting to see the result. Obviously, the decision will hinge on which account the judge finds more believable but, in light of the Alberta court decision that found universities could be considered government when it comes to regulating speech, there’s a strong chance that the court may find CEGEPs to be government in a situation like this. If that happens it will have ramifications at the many universities and CEGEPs across the province who have anti-pamphlet policies on all or part of their campuses.

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