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Will students be silenced -- the HRO's director says no
Concerns for student leaders belie the broadness of the policy’s definition and examples of what constitutes harmful conduct and misconduct. Image: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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UOSU says policy could impose consequences on students’ rights to protest and criticize university — HRO director says it won’t 

The University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Office (HRO) is currently working on the framework for a proposed policy which would outline students’ rights and responsibilities. The document which was presented at last month’s University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) Board of Directors (BOD) meeting, has raised concerns among student leaders.

The framework’s main goal is to ensure students conduct themselves in a manner that contributes positively to a learning, working, and living University environment in which respect, civility, diversity, opportunity, and inclusiveness are valued by not engaging or assisting in any harmful conduct/misconduct.

Concerns for student leaders belie the broadness of the policy’s definition and examples of what constitutes harmful conduct and misconduct. 

“I thought the document was very comprehensive and included a lot [of] information and guidelines in policies that already existed but may have had some gaps. The interpretation of some of those may become an area of worry and I was hoping to further examine that through board discussions,” said Saada Hussen, one of the two undergraduate student representatives on the U of O’s Board of Governors, in a message to the Fulcrum.

Hussen was joined by UOSU Executive Committee members Tim Gulliver and Armaan Kheppar in expressing these concerns. At the BOD meeting, Kheppar took issue with the policy’s proposed framework, deeming it essentially a student code of conduct.

“It was initially presented to us as a culminating document where all student rights would be outlined, which it does …  but what this also does, which wasn’t really brought to our attention, was it adds a whole slew of examples of misconduct that the university can handle, impose penalties on students, and there’s a huge range of what these penalties can look like, and that’s mainly where we have issues with it,” said Kheppar, the UOSU’s advocacy commissioner, to the BOD. 

The framework outlines a number of ​​proposed measures in the event a student is found responsible for harmful conduct by the University. These range from a written warning to the possibility of suspension, expulsion, or, in the case of an alumnus, the revocation of a degree. Other possible consequences for acts of misconduct include restitution, the cancellation of financial awards, and transcript notation. 

Noël Badiou, the HRO’s director, says the goal of this policy is not punishment, but remediation.

“The only time you’re going to expel a student or fire a staff member is with the most egregious kinds of behaviour or repeated egregious behaviour, right. So while it’s in there. It shouldn’t be thought that that’s the first place we go,” explained Badiou.

“No, the whole intent, … will be all about learning, teaching, remedying a situation, correcting a situation, as opposed to punishing. It’s not intended to be a document to be used in a punitive way, in any shape or form.”

“That goes against the whole human rights philosophy.”

What does the framework deem as harmful conduct?

Outlined in the document are ten different categories of examples of what constitutes misconduct. The main issue for student leaders is that the examples are very broad and if interpreted in a certain way could limit students’ rights. They are worried the University could use the document to justify imposing consequences on students who fairly criticize the U of O publicly and hold peaceful protests on campus.

Category two of the section deals with University property and property of others, however, example F is one that has drawn the ire of student leaders. The example states that students could be found responsible for harmful conduct if they “knowingly create a condition or circumstance which damages or threatens to damage the reputation of the University.” The problem for student leaders is that damaging the reputation of the University of Ottawa is very broad, and could be enforced to crack down on fair criticism. 

“Just because you are admitted to university doesn’t mean you sign a sponsorship deal with [the University], for lack of better words … I don’t see how that protects students in any way, it completely takes away the students right to freedom of expression,” said UOSU clubs and services commissioner, Amina El-Himri, at the BOD meeting.

“That is outrageous, what you’re asking the students when they’re admitted to your [university is] that they have to protect your reputation? I don’t know. I don’t get it.”

Hussen believes that from a student and staff perspective this example can be interpreted in very different ways. 

“ ‘2F’ can be understood differently from a student and a staff/admin perspective and as I read it again, it’s clear it requires a deeper explanation and what can consist of a circumstance or condition which can damage the reputation especially if its a fact and/or existing condition at [the] U of O (ie: equity, diversity, and inclusion matters),” she wrote in a message to the Fulcrum.

Badiou agrees with Hussen, and says this example needs to be clarified for the document’s final draft as the office’s intention is in no way to take away students’ freedom of expression. 

“That is the one close that has come back as, you know, what does that mean? And to be honest with you, I think that it’s open to misinterpretation as to what that means. So I think we need to clarify that or delete that clause,” said Badiou.

“Freedom of expression for expressing themselves freely that’s protected and wanting to be upheld. This document is absolutely not going to say we can’t say anything or if we say anything critical, it’s going to be problematic. Absolutely not.”

Of course, category two, example F, is not the only example of misconduct that has raised eyebrows among student leaders. Section six has the UOSU worried that the University could use this policy to limit students’ ability to peacefully protest. This section states the following:

Section six: Disruption / interference

  1. Disruption or obstruction by action, threat or otherwise, of any University activity and, any conduct that disrupts the normal operations of the University or that infringes on the rights of another member of the University community.
  1. Interfering with, obstructing, disrupting, misleading, or failing to comply with the directions of, any University official or person authorized by the University, in the performance of their duties.
  1. Any action, conduct, display or communication that causes disruption to, or an obstruction of, the freedom of movement of any person on or at a University facility.

Gulliver explained that this section could make it nearly impossible for students to hold peaceful protests. 

“Basically, if someone from the university says do this and you don’t do this, then that can count as a violation of ‘6B’ … Hypothetically if students went on strike on campus, which were Ontario so student unions don’t often go on strike, but hypothetically this would make it impossible to strike on campus — it [would make it] very difficult to protest on campus.”

Badiou says this isn’t the case, as the intention is not to punish those who participate in peaceful protests on campus. He says the office will work to make sure to improve the wording for category six to ensure this policy cannot be interpreted as such.

“There is a concern as to whether a policy would be used to prevent or stop protests on campus. And I was able to answer absolutely not, that’s not what the policies [are] meant [for].”

“If there’s a sense that the wording that we have, would raise that concern, we’re going to change that. We’re going to make it clear that the only time that a protest wouldn’t be [allowed], [would be if it is] disrupting an exam that another student is taking, for example.”

“So I want to go back and make that much clear that it’s not absolutely to prohibit or to stop any kind of protests on campus, that’s actually not the intention,” explained Badiou. 

Why does the HRO want to implement a policy governing students’ rights and responsibilities?

Given the University of Ottawa loads of existing policies, one wonders why the institution might want to implement a separate policy to lay out student rights and responsibilities.

When asked by the Fulcrum why he thought the University of Ottawa’s HRO was going forward with the creation of such a policy, Gulliver refused to answer: “it isn’t a question for me”.

As for Badiou, he went into details as to why he believes this is new policy is necessary. He began by explaining that the HRO has the mandate to enforce University of Ottawa policies 67A: Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination and 67B: Prevention of Sexual Violence. The problem is that the HRO receives complaints every year that cannot be assessed under those two policies.

“So the Human Rights Office regularly receives complaints and concerns that don’t fit within existing policies,” said Badiou. 

“Those policies very much reflect legislation, in terms of prevention of discrimination, harassment, and prevention of sexual violence. [But] we regularly get complaints and concerns with respect to certain pages, sometimes online, most recently online, that don’t quite fit within these policies. And because we don’t have an actual policy, we’re not able to do anything with respect to those concerns that are raised.”

Although Badiou didn’t necessarily point to any particular situation or complaints, he elaborated on these behaviours and indicated how the office plans to deal with perpetrators under this new policy. 

“So [there have been] online behaviors on some social media platforms [and some in-person interactions] that don’t quite fit the definition of discrimination or harassment under policy 67 … but that would warrant some intervention.”

“What I mean by intervention, it would warrant somebody checking in with the person who caused the distress or caused the hurt, if you will, to say, you may not have had intended it, but this is the impact of the actions, and so can we have a dialogue as to how that can be corrected or not happening again kind of thing,” said Badiou.

Badiou said that he has received a constant stream of these kinds of complaints from students.

“So yeah, it is his students coming forward based on things that are happening on campus. It’s not an overwhelming number, like we’re not, we’re not having some every day. But it’s consistent throughout the year,” he said. 

When asked if these situations specifically pertained to professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval use of the ‘N-word’ in a course in September 2020, or professor Amir Attaran’s tweets which have drawn ire from francophone U of O professors as well as politicians in Quebec, Badiou had this to say: 

“I will hesitate to speak on something specific. But I will tell you that on a case by case basis, if somebody brings something to our attention, we will look at it and apply the Human Rights test, in terms of whether it crosses the line in terms of the definition of discrimination or harassment under our policy 67A. So it’s very much case by case,” he explained.

Badiou also defined how he and the office differentiate misconduct and freedom of expression. 

“I’m gonna say that somebody expressing themselves freely and respectfully is not misconduct.”

“Freedom of expression is limited by the Ontario Rights Code, as well as by the criminal code, so there are levels of expression that are not permitted. And those would be the tests that we’d be applying so in other words — does it breach it?” 

“You can express yourself but there are things that you should not and cannot say, which cause harm, and move into discriminatory behavior. And I think that’s the kind of thing that would be captured, possibly by [policy] 67A but also potentially by this policy. But it’s not meant to stop things that are uncomfortable or things that are offensive … it’s not discriminatory.”

“So the policy is not meant to capture things that are offensive. [Its] meant to capture things that are harmful and hurtful to someone else.”

Badiou says that above all, this document is meant to create a healthy environment at the University for students.

“This is really a document that’s intended to assist students in terms of [creating an] inclusive, respectful, and healthy learning-teaching environment for some of the students who teach.”

Hussen, in spite of hearing Badiou’s explanation as to the necessity of the new policy, still isn’t convinced but will work to improve it for students. She says it all depends on how the policy will be interpreted by the U of O.

“I am not sure of the necessity of this document specifically, but I do think there is a gap in current policies (especially 67a), and this could be the first steps towards ensuring students are as protected as we have seen professors to be.”

“But as I said, the interpretations of the responsibilities will be of utmost importance.”

When will this policy be implemented?

At the moment, the framework is being discussed in consultations between the HRO and student leaders. These leaders include the UOSU’s Executive Committee as well as Hussen and her fellow undergraduate representative on the BOG, Hannan Mohamud.

Badiou says he is still reaching out to student groups and leaders to get their input and feedback on the policy.

“[We’ve reached out to] the representatives of the Senate, the representatives at the BOG, and we have regular dialogues with the students.” 

“We sent [the framework] to them, and we asked each of those groups to then fan out or reach out to other groups in terms of getting some feedback.”

He says the feedback has been centered around specific language and how the policy is going to be applied. He reminds readers that the framework for the policy is still a draft and will go through many changes before its final iteration. 

“I think there’ll be a number of changes that will clarify the concerns that have been raised,” he said.

As for implementation, Badiou hopes the policy will come into effect sometime in the next year.

“My hope, or my goal [is] within the next year.”

“But, again, I don’t know, [it is] what I’m hoping, [but] this is just the beginning of the process. We’re really in the very early stages so you’re asking questions that I think will be responded to, or addressed kind of in the next iteration of the proposed document.”

Gulliver, for his part, made sure to remind his peers on the BOD that these kinds of policies have been opposed by student leaders collectively in the past.

“This was previously referred to as the Code of Conduct project, as it was previously presented twice before, in the last decade on campus. And both times the student groups mobilized against it in between the implementation of the Code of Conduct slash charter.”

In his interview with the Fulcrum, Gulliver was clear. 

“We’re leading consultations with the student body and with different stakeholders and will relay those comments to HRO. And I would be surprised if this was the last UOSU had to say on this file, given the nature of the document that was presented.”

This is a developing story.

-With files from Salma El Hajj