Ryerson is among the best universities for the “free exchange of ideas,” but the university’s students’ union ranks among the worst, according to report by a legal non-profit.
Released Monday, the Campus Freedom Index by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) measures the state of free speech at 52 Canadian public universities.
The index is calculated based on a five-tier letter scale (A, B, C, D, and F), and ranks universities and students’ unions on both policies and practices.
Ryerson University received a C for policies and A for practices, and shares the top spot with Simon Fraser University, St. Thomas University, University of King’s College and the University of Lethbridge.
It received the same grades last year, but its standing was lower.
Michael Kennedy, JCCF communications and development co-ordinator, said the improvement comes after Ryerson’s decision regarding a men’s rights event in January 2014.
The university was going to charge a security fee to the organizers, which is not the norm for such events. After backlash from the community the university dropped the fee, even though its cause is considered unpopular.
“The ideal of free expression and the ability for citizens to voice their ideas and opinions in an open forum that is tolerant of all views is an intrinsic right,” said Kennedy.
“Universities have an obligation to make sure they’re upholding this right. Half of the universities are failing in their obligation to uphold free expression.”
The organization graded the Ryerson Students’ Union with a D for policies and an F for practices — the same as last year.
RSU is ranked among the 10 worst unions in the country, along with those of the University of Toronto and the University of Manitoba.
According to the report, the union was ranked lowly because it denied certification to a student men’s issues group due to its allegedly being affiliated with two external organizations the RSU deems to be “hate groups”: A Voice for Men and the Canadian Association for Equality.
Also, the RSU has formally taken political stances on issues like bottled water, public funding for Pride events, women’s issues and, most recently, the motion to support BDS.
Kennedy said students’ unions would be scored highly for allowing unpopular political discussion to take place unhindered on campus, but RSU’s taking a formal stance on the subject infringes upon the freedom of speech of the opposing side and results in a lower grade.
RSU president Rajean Hoilett said in response to the report freedom of speech should not come at the expense of the need to “uphold safer and more inclusive spaces.”
“I think that there seems to be a bit of a difference of opinion on what freedom of expression is,” he said.
“There’s a very clear difference between hate speech and freedom of expression. As a students’ union, we’re very proud in the work that we do to create safer spaces on campus and not promote things like hate speech.”
The JCCF report states that “the free expression and debate of ideas can be threatened by open-ended commitments to fostering things like ‘safe space’ and a ‘respectful’ atmosphere.”
The purpose of the index, according to JCCF, is to “provide new insight into the amount of taxpayer dollars that are spent by our public universities through government transfers.”
For universities, the index considers how clearly policies regarding free speech on campus are stated in mandates, mission and vision statements and their positions on academic freedom. How these policies are put into practice is also considered.
The index takes into account similar criteria for students’ unions, but also looks at policies that “restrict the student unions’ advocacy on issues related to post-secondary education, without adopting or promoting formal positions in respect of provincial, federal, or international issues.”
Kennedy said the index is important because these public universities are receiving tax dollars and almost half of the 52 institutions are not allowing students to freely express themselves. The unions are funded directly by students through their tuition fees.
Ryerson president Sheldon Levy could not be immediately reached for comment.
With files from Abigale Subdhan