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University’s free speech ranked low despite upward trend for most schools

Photo: Julia Riddle

The University of Ottawa remains one of the worst Canadian universities when it comes to the protection of free speech, according to a constitutional law organization’s annual rankings.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) released its 2014 Campus Freedom Index, an annual report that ranks both student unions and university administrations on a scale from A to F.

Regarding the protection of freedom of expression, the U of O this year earned a D for its policies and an F for its practices.

“I think taxpayers and governments should be holding these public universities to account on free speech moreso than they are right now,” said Michael Kennedy, the JCCF’s communications and development coordinator.

The main citation against the U of O was the protest surrounding a speech by English professor Janice Fiamengo this past March. During her talk on whether rape culture really exists on campuses, protestors banged on desks, chanted, and blew a vuvuzela to drown her out.

A representative from the Revolutionary Student Movement (RSM), the campus group that organized the demonstration, wrote in an email to the Fulcrum: “We feel that these ideas have no place on our campus and refuse to legitimize them by allowing them space to organize.”

Fiamengo isn’t surprised by the university’s failing grade.

“I would have to say that speech on the University of Ottawa campus, when the speech is about a politically incorrect subject, is not free,” she said.

Kennedy said that given that Fiamengo’s previous speeches at other Ontario universities were disrupted, the university could have done more to protect free speech.

“When you have other individuals trying to disrupt that exchange and that dialogue, the university must step in with its campus security to ensure the rule of law is upheld,” he said.

Although the protestors have the right to express their displeasure with Fiamengo’s opinions, said Kennedy, “there’s no reason why those students couldn’t have held off on their questions or their comments until the end.”

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) did not fare much better scoring Ds in both policies and practices.

The JCCF named the SFUO’s club policy as one of the reasons for its poor grades. Clubs are not allowed to have posters that are “sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic or any other wording and imagery deemed offensive by the SFUO.”

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SFUO president Anne-Marie Roy criticized the JCCF’s methodology.

“There’s definitely a bias and an intention behind how the report is conducted that doesn’t actually reflect a lot of the values of the SFUO,” she said.

“Free speech is more complex than saying everything that crosses your mind when you feel like saying it,” said Roy, adding that the SFUO does not condone hate speech.

In response to the report, the U of O said it “encourages its students, faculty, and other members to preserve and promote freedom of expression and to make the campus a forum that encourages the expression of different points of view,” according to a statement.

Students at the U of O erected a free speech wall in February in response to last year’s Campus Freedom Index, but the wall itself annoyed some students after it was covered with multiple scrawls of “hate speech is not free speech” and promotion of the RSM.

Kennedy said he’s pleased with the general trend across Canada.

“Overall, I think the Campus Freedom Index is providing an incentive to universities and student unions to better their policies and to ensure the free exchange of ideas on campus,” he said. “Because if that doesn’t happen on campus, then where can it really happen?”