Ryerson fails in positive free speech

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By Abigale Subdhan
Ryersonian Staff

The Ryerson Students’ Union has been rated the second-worst student union in the country when it comes to honouring freedom of expression rights, according to a recent report.

The 2013 Campus Freedom Index, which measures the state of free speech in Canadian universities, gave the RSU a D and an F for failing to implement positive free speech policies and practices on campus.

“Ryerson’s student union gets a failing grade because the students’ union has denied resources to a student group (based on) the views that they wanted to promote on campus,” said Michael Kennedy, the communications co-ordinator for the group that did the study. “And that’s exactly what’s not acceptable on a university campus.”

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a research and advocacy organization in Alberta, compiled the report, which grades 45 universities based on a five-tier grading system – A, B, C, D or F.

Each university received four letter grades based on the policies and practices of both the student union and the university as a whole.

In March 2013, the RSU denied official group certification to three students who proposed a men’s issues group on campus because it was allegedly affiliated with two external organizations, A Voice for Men and the Canadian Association for Equality.

The RSU suggested these two organizations are “hate groups.”

“Universities are where Canada’s next generation of leaders are being groomed for adulthood and good citizenship. And if universities not taking that culture of free expression seriously, then what’s going to happen when these student graduate and start engaging in the democratic process?”

The RSU also lost points for not including any statements in Ryerson’s policy manual about free speech or its importance, according to Kennedy.

“The (RSU) has a lot of policies that are so ambiguous in their language that they empower the executives to deny services or to discriminate against students whose views are unpopular,” said Kennedy. “Most universities in Canada make it a point to include some type of statement on free speech or on academic freedom. You don’t see that at the Ryerson students’ union.”

Rajean Hoilett, RSU vice-president for equity declined to comment on that criticism.

The study gave at least 23 universities one failing grade, which means that 51 per cent of Canadian universities have engaged in some form of censorship on campus.

President Sheldon Levy said he is sympathetic to the idea of more freedom of speech on campus.

“I would say that, generally, the strength of freedom of information is the ability to welcome groups that you don’t want to hear from,” he said. “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to provide room for it.”

The RSU tied for second-last with the student unions of six other universities, including McGill University, Queen’s University and the University of Calgary.

Ryerson did, however, receive a B average overall, which included one A grade to describe the university’s academic practices.

The grades were determined by looking at written policies that have a stated commitment to free speech on campus, including policies on non-academic misconduct, student code of conduct and club certification, as well as media reports pertaining to a record of free speech incidents.

The Campus Freedom Index, which is in its third edition, names Carleton University and the University of Ottawa as the worst universities in Canada for freedom of expression.

“Universities are where Canada’s next generation of leaders are being groomed for adulthood and good citizenship,” said Kennedy. “And if universities not taking that culture of free expression seriously, then what’s going to happen when these student graduate and start engaging in the democratic process?”

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