Editorial

University of Ottawa Senate
There needs to be a return to the drawing table — we believe the policy outlined in this document, in its present form, isn’t ready to be implemented. Photo: Marta Kierkus/Fulcrum
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New policy to be voted on at Feb. 14 Senate meeting

On Feb. 14, the University of Ottawa Senate will move to motion a new policy aiming to outline student rights and “responsible conduct” at the University.

A modified version of the policy, which was published in the Fulcrum on Oct. 17 and presented at the University of Ottawa Students’ Union’s (UOSU) Board of Directors meeting earlier that month, raised concerns among student leaders. 

These concerns surrounded the potential interpretation of the policy, the need for a policy to govern students’ rights to begin with, and articles that could potentially be used by the U of O to punish students for criticizing the university and squash peaceful protests on campus.

“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 former UOSU clubs and services commissioner, Amina El-Himri, in early October.

In an interview with the Fulcrum, Noël Badiou, director of the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Office, had attempted to dispel these concerns, assuring that the policy’s goal was not to ban peaceful protests on campus or criticism of the University. 

With that said, the new version of the document, which has yet to be shared with the public and is embargoed until 3 p.m. on Feb. 14, has resulted in UOSU writing an open letter demanding the Senate remove it from its agenda. 

“A second phase of discussions began on February 2nd, 2022. At the outset, the UOSU communicated our view that the Code of Conduct should be removed from the Senate agenda on February 14th, 2022, to allow more time for student voices to be heard in this process.”

The Union justified its call by stating it believes “several elements of the Code could still be applied in ways that ‘would be egregious to student rights and freedoms.’ ”

This is a call echoed by the Fulcrum. We believe that this new policy could be applied in a way which jeopardizes freedom of the press on campus, as it could punish student journalists and our sources. 

Under this new policy, a student who is in possession of a University document without the explicit permission of the rightful owner could face severe consequences. This means that a student journalist who writes a story based on information obtained from a leaked University document could face serious consequences, up to and including expulsion from the University. 

Ironically, the first draft of this policy was leaked to us and is the only document which closely resembles the final policy to be publicly available to students. Under the proposed policy, we could potentially face consequences for posting a document of this sort on our website. 

We believe students have the right to be aware of the contents of this document — yet it is embargoed. Given the way it could police them, students should be given the opportunity to read the final version of the policy before it is passed by the Senate.

There were consultations with the student union and other student associations on campus, but when they are qualified as “a mirage and not a genuine exercise” by the University’s undergraduate student union, it raises questions as to what exactly the aim of this policy is.

We also share concerns with student leaders about vague wording within individual articles, and how that could lead to these articles being interpreted in a way to punish students for actions that don’t harm other students, but instead the reputation of the University. 

An example of this is the main article, which deals with cyber-bullying. It also states that it is a breach of responsible conduct for students to post online content such as blog posts or web postings that impinges on the University’s learning, working and living environment. 

The vagueness of what constitutes the “University’s learning, working and living environment” is concerning. Could an article on a U of O professor’s use of a racial slur in a virtual lecture negatively impact the University’s learning and working environment? Arguably, yes, meaning once again, student journalists could face potential consequences for their work.

This is not acceptable.

To that point, there is only one article that may somewhat protect student journalists under this new policy, but it is poorly defined.

It states that this policy does not apply if the alleged conduct occurs while the student is acting as an employee of the University or while carrying out employee duties. This is incredibly broad, and it is impossible to know if it only affects employees of the University or employees at large that may have to breach what the policy defines as responsible behaviour to complete their duties. 

This also raises the following question: who determines what “employee duties” are for student journalists? Is this a power the University gives itself? If that is the case, we are heading down a dangerous road when it comes to freedom of the student press on this campus. 

We are also concerned that the policy can be amended at any time by the secretary-general if it is judged that technical revisions are needed and if the correction does not change the meaning of a provision. The problem is, when it comes to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, changing a single word can make a world of difference when it comes to interpretation.

Finally, the policy also includes a vague article which aims to make it a breach of responsible conduct for students to record a person and publicly disseminate it if there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and when this recording or image “may cause injury or distress.” 

The phrasing “a reasonable expectation of privacy” leaves, again, much to be interpreted — is an interaction recorded between an employee of the University and a student where inappropriate remarks are made considered “a reasonable expectation of privacy” for the employee?  As for the injury or distress caused by the recording — who exactly is protected by this article? The student who may have feared for their safety and have been the victim of inappropriate comments or actions, or the perpetrator?

And, circling back to student journalism, sometimes the only way to obtain certain information is through single-party consent recordings — which are legal in Canada. This is just another way our work could be impeded if this policy is presented to the Senate and passes.

In October, when our editor-in-chief Charley Dutil asked Badiou why he believed this new policy was necessary, this was his answer. 

“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.”

We are not opposed to that, but we are opposed to a policy that could potentially jeopardize the freedom of the student press on campus and infringes on students’ rights and freedoms.

This policy has major flaws. A policy outlining students’ rights and responsibilities should have some student support — this one has none because it doesn’t outline student rights — it outlines everything the University believes is unacceptable student behaviours.

There needs to be a return to the drawing table — we believe the policy outlined in this document, in its present form, isn’t ready to be implemented.

For the Fulcrum to support this new policy, it needs to outright guarantee that it will not be used to silence student media on campus and not punish student journalists for reporting on the University’s failings.

If the University decides to go through and present this policy to the Senate on Feb.14, we call on Senators, especially student Senators, to do the right thing and strike it down. 

Editorials are written by the Fulcrum’s 14 person editorial board and express the shared views and opinions of the Fulcrum’s editorial staff. To share your own views, email editor@thefulcrum.ca.