Ryerson gets an F for free speech practices

Ryerson and the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) flunked a 2017 report card from a national organization whose mandate is to defend free speech and other Constitutional rights.

The 2017 Campus Freedom Index (CFI) gave Ryerson a C for its policies and an F for practices. The RSU failed both categories.

The Campus Freedom Index gave Ryerson University an F for their free speech practices, a first in at least five years. (Photo by Maggie Macintosh)

Universities and their student unions are given grades from A to F on the annual CFI, which measures free speech policies and practices at 60 public universities in Canada.

The grades were published in late September by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF).

“Ryerson needs to hold free expression and academic freedom to a much higher degree of importance than they do things like creating a welcoming environment or a positive space,” said Michael Kennedy, co-author of the CFI and JCCF communications director.

Only six A grades were published this year, while 38 F grades were distributed to various universities and student unions.

“University isn’t always going to be a comfortable space for people because it’s the place where we debate very controversial, high-profile issues of which people have a variety of different viewpoints,” he said.

RSU president Susanne Nyaga received a letter about Ryerson and the RSU’s grades from the CFI authors earlier this semester.

“My definition of freedom of speech is definitely a little bit different than their definition of freedom of speech,” she said.

Nyaga said she’s proud of the work the RSU has done to stand up for marginalized communities, including its support for trans, racialized and Indigenous students.

“I’d rather support those marginalized communities than fight for an A grade, which might harm those communities.”

Nyaga added the university could do more work to stand up against hate speech.

Ryerson administration responded to the Ryersonian’s request for comment by stating: “One of the university’s primary responsibilities is to protect and promote free speech and the open exchange of ideas on campus within a culture of mutual respect.”

Ryerson’s CFI profile cites the university’s decision to cancel “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” panel in August as part of the reason why Ryerson ended up on the flunk list.

Sarina Singh, the Ryerson social work graduate and free speech advocate who organized the panel, arranged to rent a room at Ryerson.

Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor known for his refusal to use his students’ preferred pronouns, and  Rebel Media  contributor Faith Goldy, were among the panellists.

Less than a week before the event, Ryerson released a statement cancelling the room rental to prioritize campus safety over free speech.

“Ryerson is not equipped to provide the necessary level of public safety for the event to go forward, particularly given the recent events in Charlottesville, Va.,” according to the statement the university posted on Facebook on Aug. 16.

Susanne Nyaga, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union received the failing grade from the 2017 Campus Freedom Index earlier this semester. (Photo by Melissa Bennardo)

In an email, Singh told the Ryersonian, “this cowardly act by Ryerson has emboldened the enemies of free speech.”

She said she’ll never hold another event at the university.

“Ryerson is a complete and absolute disgrace,” Singh said. “I’m ashamed it’s my alma mater.”

James Turk, the director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, published a blog post that called Ryerson’s decision to cancel the panel a mistake, but said the CFI rankings are “useless.”

Turk said that while the JCCF is a well-intentioned institution, the rankings reduce complex free speech matters to a grade.

“Ryerson is the only university in Canada that has created a Centre for Free Expression and given people like me a blank canvas to create it,” he said. He added that the centre’s existence isn’t mentioned in the CFI.

Kennedy, the CFI’s co-author, said the university’s fundamental purpose is to promote the free exchange of ideas and find truth through open discussion.

Kennedy said universities and student unions like the RSU don’t need to be inventing new restrictions on free speech because the Criminal Code already does that. Under the Criminal Code, hate speech is defined as any form of public speech that promotes or incites hatred towards a targeted group, which could disrupt peace.

“Every one of the universities (on the index) says that, on paper, it values academic freedom and free expression and holds it to a high pedestal but then, in practice, it seems to all fall apart,” Kennedy said.

Ryerson’s official position on freedom of speech states that, “Ryerson does not avoid controversies, difficult ideas, or disagreements over deeply held views.”

The university’s average is getting worse. In 2015, Ryerson scored an A for practices. Last year, its practices got a D. The grade for the university’s policies hasn’t  moved from a C since 2015.

The RSU continues to receive Fs for its refusal to grant both a men’s issues group and an anti-abortion group official RSU club status.

“I would be very frustrated as a black femme student if my student union was allowing students to be racist and misogynistic just to uphold freedom of speech rather than caring about my wellbeing,” Nyaga said.

She said freedom of speech is close to her heart because black voices have historically been silenced, but that certain free speech conversations need to be inclusive.

“When we’re having conversations about trans lives but trans people aren’t at the table, that’s an issue,” she said.

Nyaga said she supported the decision to cancel the panel.

She said it’s “super messed up” to give Peterson — a cis, white and able-bodied man — a platform to talk about trans-ness, pronouns and dictate the value of trans lives.

“He is not trans and he does not face transphobia, nor does he understand it very clearly by his statements.”

“The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” took place off-campus last weekend, three months after Ryerson revoked Singh’s privilege to rent Ryerson space. Peterson spoke at the rescheduled panel, which was held at Canada Christian College in Toronto.

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