Free speech investigated on campus

(Graphic by Mitchell Cheeseman)

Wilfrid Laurier University received criticism for the state of freedom of speech on its campus in a report released by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms on Oct. 31.

The 2012 Freedom Index graded 35 campuses across Canada, measuring how well public universities and their student unions are upholding the right students have to freedom of speech and expression.

Laurier was graded as follows: “D” for university policies and principles, “F” for university actions and practices, “F” for student union policies and principles and “D” for student union actions and practices.

According to the index, these grades reflected the majority of universities in Canada.

According to the report, two instances constituted the basis for Laurier’s grades in 2011-12: Israeli Apartheid Week had to take down posters, and in 2008 the Laurier Free-Thought Alliance was not granted official club status.

Michael Onabolu, president and CEO of Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union (WLUSU), believes that the index contains many inaccuracies and errors.

“Just looking at some of the issues that they cite as ‘evidence’ for not upholding those values for free speech, a lot of it is just inaccurate and not the full picture,” he explained.

Adam Lawrence, the acting dean of students, explained, “When it comes to Israeli Apartheid Week, this index is an incomplete picture of what actually happened.”

According to Lawrence, long discussions were had between the conflicting groups, which included Laurier 4 Palestine, a Laurier Students’ Public Interest Group (LSPIRG) working group who put on the week-long event, and the party who took offense to some of the pictures that were posted.

“This is what free speech is,” Lawrence said. “Groups having the ability to say what they feel; to post what is important to them, but for there to be some critical dialogue around those pictures, those discussions and those concerns.”

He explained that he was frustrated that the index took a complex situation, summed it up in one sentence and based a grade off of it.

The Laurier Free-Thought Alliance was not granted official club status due to its original mission. However, after changing it to be more inclusive, they became an official club.

Onabolu explained that the criteria for a club to gain official club status are twofold — it cannot infringe on anyone else’s rights and it cannot already exist.

“We try to be as minimally infringing on clubs as we can and allow them free reign to empower them to do what they’d like to do for students on campus,” he said

Lawrence agreed with Onabolu that the index isn’t an accurate representation of Laurier.

“It’s so biased and so out of context with the reality of the situation,” he continued.

“I think what frustrates me the most is that not one person from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms contacted LSPIRG or the Diversity and Equity office about something they were printing in here.”

Lawrence expressed his belief that everyone in the Laurier community should have a voice.

“Now if that voice is hateful, or angry, or going to cause violence, then that’s a problem,” he noted. “But if it’s a voice that is really impactful and wants to make positive change, I think that’s important.”

Shereen Rowe, university secretary and general counsel, spoke to the legal and legislative obligations the university has to adhere to regarding harassment and discrimination.

“I think that the university does value and protect freedom of speech and expression, but obviously we can only do that in the context of legal obligation,” she explained.

In certain situations, she continued, the university has to balance principles of freedom of speech with the legislative principles that also have value.

A Laurier student who wished to remain anonymous had a different opinion of free speech on campus. She explained that as a feminist she has found that males in the classroom, though unintentional, “prevent some women from speaking and saying what they really want to say.”

From her experience she has also found that some professors are not aware of the way in which they hinder freedom of speech.

“Overall, when it comes to freedom of speech at Laurier, there could always be more discussions,” she concluded.

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