The debate over freedom of expression on campus

Most universities fall short when it comes to supporting free speech, critic says

University professors tend to enforce certain types of ideology while ignoring or dismissing other ones in the classroom, limiting the expression of ideas by students, critics say. Stephen Kurz

The upcoming publication of the Campus Freedom Index raises questions about the University of Winnipeg’s capacity for supporting freedom of expression on campus. 

The Campus Freedom Index, to be published at the beginning of November by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, evaluates and ranks the state of free expression at several Canadian universities.

John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, believes the modern university is no longer a bastion for free speech and open intellectual debate.

“Most universities will proclaim they support free speech when most fall short of the mark,” he said.

Carpay argues censorship of free expression on campuses is limited to expression of ideas deemed appropriate by student unions and, partially, university administration.

“Student unions are far worse than the universities,” he said. “You get people that think so highly of their own opinions that they leave no room for other ideas.”

In 2010, while previewing a genocide awareness display on campus, a pro-life student group at the University of Calgary was told by school administration to turn their signs inwards.

Though the school has no official policy against such displays, Carpay holds this should still be regarded as censorship carried out by campus administration.

“Every student group should have access to high visibility, high traffic areas, but pro-life groups do not,” he said. “That is a type of discrimination.”

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an organization affiliated with the majority of student unions in Canada, including the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA), may also contribute to this problem, adds Carpay.

“The CFS declared itself to be officially pro-choice,” he said. “This organization is supposed to represent a wide body of students with different opinions - trying to shut out pro-life groups is ridiculous.”

Though these issues appear to be associated solely with pro-life groups, Carpay emphasizes they mirror a larger problem.

“This sounds like it’s about pro-life but it’s not. Once a group has censorship powers they can use them for anything,” he said. “Expression shouldn’t depend on the views of student groups.”

Gregory Furmaniuk, CFS liaison for the UWSA, said any ideological declarations made by the group are subject to a democratic process.

“The CFS is a democratic organization and any resolutions declaring a political position has to go through the democratic process,” he said. “The CFS is not imposing their ideas on anyone.”

John Corlett, vice-president academic at the University of Winnipeg, said the school has no policy meant to censor free speech.

“Universities very strongly uphold the tenets of free speech,” he said. “The ideal climate of discourse is to encourage a full range of ideas.”

Reaching logical conclusions is entirely dependent on free speech, which is why free expression is of such importance for universities, adds Corlett.

“Academic freedom itself is enshrined in the idea that ideas matter,” he said. “How can we make good choices and good policies without having all the ideas in one place? We need all the information to make the right choices.”

Free expression in the classroom

Paul Myerson, a business student at U of W, believes free expression limitations are more inherent in classroom environments as opposed to the campus.

“In one politics class we talked about unilateral action towards genocide in Darfur and I suggested that we need to stop what’s happening even if that means military intervention,” he said. “The professor went on a huge rant and said I was wrong.”

The politics department in particular has a tendency to impose certain ways of thinking and certain ways of speaking, Myerson said.

“It feels like they are promoting Leninism, Marxism, communism and socialism,” he said. “If someone tells these things to students who have never voted and never dealt with politics they might become ignorant of what other choices are out there.”

Paul Burbank, a U of W politics student and intern at the Council on Post-Secondary Education, is comfortable expressing himself in classrooms.

“I’ve never had the problem of being shut out,” he said.

However, Burbank noted, a professor’s bias can affect classroom debate in many ways.

“Professors may not prevent free expression directly, but they can alienate students by emphasizing left wing course themes without providing enough room for discussing what is being critiqued,” he said.

Academia tends to be a left wing endeavour, but larger universities are often more balanced and less factional, Burbank added.

“If you want to compare U of W to a larger institution there might be less radical thinkers, but academia in general is more of a left wing pursuit,” he said.

Corlett believes professors who share their opinions make for a better educational experience.

“Do professors’ viewpoints make their ways into classrooms? I hope so,” he said. “I want students to get a broad range of personal passionate views from a wide range of people.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 19, 2011)

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