University practices influence free speech on North American campuses

Cory Morse |
A group protests white nationalist Richard Spencer’s visit to Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, on Monday, March 5, 2018. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Editor’s note: this story pairs with “Sen. Hatch introduces bill to end free speech zones on campuses”

“Actions speak louder than words” may be more than a cliche when it comes to free speech on college campuses. Educational institutions all over North America have attracted criticism for supposedly stifling one of democracy’s most fundamental rights; however, the issue might not entirely be policy based.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms monitor the state of free speech on campuses in the United States and Canada, respectively.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education assigns U.S colleges a red, yellow or green light ranking based on how restrictive the college’s free speech policy is. BYU currently holds the additional speech code rating “warning.” FIRE acknowledges BYU is a private institution and, as such, can prioritize other values above absolute free speech if it wishes to do so.

Only 6 percent of 449 schools reviewed by FIRE in 2017 received a green-light rating. This number has more than tripled in the last nine years, jumping from eight to 27. Yet on many campuses, free speech seems more hazardous than ever. The foundation suggests this is because some universities don’t practice what they preach. 

According to the Justice Centre’s 2017 Campus Freedom Index, which analyzed 60 Canadian universities, all of the universities that received a failing grade for their practices did not have a failing grade for their policies.  

A prime example of a discrepancy between policy and practice is the University of Alberta, which received an “A” for its free speech policy and an “F” for its practices.

The student group UAlberta Pro-Life is currently awaiting a court judgment on the claim that the university illegally and unjustifiably infringed on its freedom of expression.

In January 2016, the group applied for authorization to set up a stationary educational display on campus. Eleven days before the event, the University of Alberta notified the students they would need to pay $17,500 in “security fees.” This included the wages of security guards and police, the cost of barricading the venue and the cost of potential misconduct by students obstructing and disrupting the display.

Unable to afford the fee, UAlberta Pro-Life was forced to cancel.

The year prior, then-university President Indira Samarasekera expressed support for a similar UAlberta Pro-Life event in a public statement. She asserted the university must facilitate and protect the peaceful expression of all views, regardless of popularity.

In direct violation of the Code of Student Behaviour, a student-led protest blockaded and obstructed the club’s display. Though university officials knew beforehand of the protest and of Samarasekera’s warning that any misbehavior would be investigated and prosecuted, the University of Alberta Protective Services didn’t stop the blockade or seek to identify any of the students involved in the obstruction.

A similar discrepancy between policy and practice occurred at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, when the College Republicans invited political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus.

The College Republicans were charged $1,000 for extra security, which failed to act when other students stormed the stage in protest.

Furthermore, the college limited Yiannopoulos’ speaking time to 15–20 minutes and, following the event, forbade students from inviting him again. The university went on to ban Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator, from speaking to the DePaul Young Americans for Freedom chapter.

Though DePaul University is a private institution, it still promises free expression and claims to encourage “student organizations to sponsor guest speakers whose presentation will contribute to the role of the university as a forum for intellectual discussion, debate, investigation and/or artistic expression.”

McGill University in Quebec affirms “members of the university community have the right of freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly,” including “the right to communicate one’s thoughts, beliefs and opinions, and to comment on any issue, including the right to criticize society at large, and the university itself.

Yet McGill student Anthony Koch was forbidden by his editor from publishing a pro-free market article in the McGill Daily.

“I was told capitalism is inherently a system based on violence and the oppression of marginalized communities by those who hold the levers of power,” Koch said.

He also criticized the student paper for having a strict anti-Zionist editorial line, refusing to publish any positive portrayal of Israel.

McGill received a failing grade for practices in the 2017 Campus Freedom Index.

Along with administrative practice, student practice of free speech is playing a crucial role in the current campus climate. 

Wesleyan University’s policy condemns “all forms of discriminatory interference” with an individual or group’s expression of free speech.

This policy did not stop a student activist group from trashing the student paper when it published an op-ed that criticized the tactics of Black Lives Matter. The activists introduced a petition to defund the 147-year-old paper and recycled the newspapers as soon as they were available on campus.

The University of Toronto believes “the existence of an institution where unorthodox ideas, alternative modes of thinking and living, and radical prescriptions for social ills can be debated contributes immensely to social and political change and the advancement of human rights.”

Nonetheless, when psychology professor Jordan Peterson expressed his frustration with gender political correctness, he became the target of student-led antagonism. Students used white noise machines to drown out his voice at a free speech rally and on one occasion his office door was glued shut, the BBC reported. The university responded by urging Peterson to stop sharing his opinions.

Callista Olivares, a student at the University of Alberta, said the best way to combat polarized antagonism is through education and promoting diversity.

She recalled how, in response to anonymous anti-Sikh hate posters put up around the university, officials held an event where students of all backgrounds had the opportunity to learn about the Sikh religion. Hundreds of people showed up to offer their support to the Sikh community.

“Tolerance is the idea of putting up with someone more or less against your will,” Olivares said. “Embracing diversity means acknowledging people are different and it is these divergences that lead to a well-rounded and better-functioning society.”

Diana Ginn, a professor at the Schulich School of Law in Halifax, said a connection can be made between democracy and free speech, especially as expression becomes involved in other rights and freedoms. She also believes this connection is crucial in approaching the convoluted and controversial nature of free speech.

“We shouldn’t just be thinking about what we like, but rather how what we’re doing either enhances or limits what we see as some of the fundamentals of democracy,” Ginn said.

While numerous campuses in North America are doing their part to encourage free speech, there are still many improvements in practices that need to be made, she said. Ginn encourages staff and students to model respectful free speech in schools and fight for the democratic right without bias in mind.

“I think we’re all better at standing up for the freedom that we should be heard,” Ginn said. “But I hope that we also remember to say, ‘I disagree with you, but you should be heard.’”

Explore a map of the worst campuses for free speech in 2017, according to FIRE and the Campus Freedom Index. 

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