The University of Calgary has decided to appeal an Alberta judge’s ruling not because they disagree with it, but because they want to know how close to the line they can go in the future without the courts stepping in again.
At stake is students’ right to free speech regarding their experiences on a university campus.
The case in question surrounds a Facebook page created by brothers Keith and Steven Pridgen that heavily criticized a professor they both had for a survey law course. Aruna Mitra, the professor, complained to the university after finding these comments online and the university found the brothers guilty of non-academic misconduct, were place on probation and threatened with expulsion if they did not apologize to Mitra.
Typically the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has not applied to universities because they are not government institutions. While they are publically funded, for the most part, universities are deemed legally autonomous, as they are not part of the government infrastructure — i.e. judicial, legislative and executive branches.
But these two students successfully sued the university after a second appeal to the board of governors was denied. Justice Jo’Anne Strekaf’s rulings states: “Students should not be prevented from expressing critical opinions regarding the subject matter or quality of the teaching they are receiving.”
The difference at the University of Calgary, the judge ruled, is that the university was punishing students to try and force desirable behaviour, a job typically performed by government, but universities are allowed to do by legislation. Because these punishments were being carried out in a manner that would normally be dealt with by a government body, the Charter applies.
Interestingly, the University of Calgary has no issue with the ruling and has no intention to pursue further legal action against the Pridgen brothers.
University spokesperson James Stevenson told the Canadian University Press, “This is not about fighting the Pridgens. This is about us trying to seek clarity.”
He said that case law is “all over the map” when it comes to how the Charter applies to universities and the University of Calgary is “seeking clarification as to what aspects the charter plays in day-to-day operations.”
But in doing so, they’re further dragging the Pridgens through hell.
The University of Calgary is right in seeking clarification on what could be a tense legal issue in its future. But at this point the Pridgens should be allowed to continue on with their lives, content that their case was well argued, and well won.