Student on probation for Facebook comments

By Sarelle Azuelos

Several university students were charged with non-academic misconduct after writing comments about a professor they didn’t like on a Facebook group.

The group, called “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with [instructor’s name],” first showed up when students were unhappy with their professor’s teaching capabilities in their fall 2007 Law and Society 201 course.

“[Instructor’s name] IS NO LONGER TEACHING ANY COURSES AT THE U OF C!!!!! Remember when she told us she was a long-term prof? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn’t able to do it .. lucky us. Well anyways I think we should all congratulate ourselves for leaving a [instructor’s name]-free legacy for future LWSO students,” wrote Keith Pridgen, one of the students charged, on the site in August 2008.

Students on the site also complained that the instructor answered questions with, “What do you think?” and regularly asked students not to quote her on facts she brought up in class.

Pridgen added that the professor claimed the Magna Carta was signed in 1700, and that the Notwithstanding Clause, from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was never used in Canada.

Pridgen was first notified of his charge in fall 2008 by an e-mail from interim communications and culture dean Dr. Wisdom Tettey. The group was removed from Facebook once the complaints arose.

Pridgen was asked to appear before the dean, as is procedure according to the university calendar.

“The lawyers of the university had already determined that non-academic misconduct had occurred and we were supposed to have mitigating factors to determine what our punishment should be,” said Pridgen.

He came to the ad hoc committee with an apology, but it was not accepted.

Pridgen was also given a copy of the university calendar to refresh himself on the non-academic policies while other students made their case.

He asked for the meeting to be recorded for future reference, but said he was laughed at by one of the committee members.

The university refused to comment on the case. It has no strict policy regarding online misconduct, but a meeting has been scheduled to discuss possibilities next week.

After the first meeting, Pridgen was given a 24-month probationary period and asked to write an apology letter, which he later appealed to the general faculties council, which provides leadership on institutional policy including the creation of the calendar. The council reduced the sentence to four months and removed the apology requirement.

“It only became an issue when it started to interfere with my marks and my future,” said Pridgen.

The probation will come off his record once completed, but the initial two-year period would have affected his applications to graduate school, he said.

Pridgen chose to continue the appeal process to the U of C’s board of governors, but was told he could not because he faced probation, not expulsion or a fine.

“Our purpose is also to let the board of governors hear about this so they can push aside the random bureaucrat who says we can’t appeal,” he said.

The Post-Secondary Learning Act states that the general faculties council, subject to the board of governors, can “hear and determine appeals” from students and their discipline authority includes the power to fine, expel and suspend students.

Pridgen’s lawyer Waldemar Igras said the university was misinterpreting this to mean that students can’t appeal if under probation.

“His right to free speech has definitely been curtailed here and . . . all he’s done is made a comment about an instructor that was truthful,” said Igras. “By all accounts [the professor] wasn’t a great instructor or at least didn’t have the knowledge of the subject matter and he’s getting punished for that.”

Igras pointed to the Universal Student Ratings of Instruction surveys that students filled out for the instructor’s course as proof the teaching inadequacies. The professor received 3.06 out of seven for overall instruction.

Igras said that the professor was in a relationship with one of the committee members which determined Pridgen’s sentence. He also said that the professor in question never brought any proof of harm to the hearings.

According to the university calendar, faculty deans “have the authority to suspend temporarily any student for alleged non-academic misconduct.” Students need not be proven guilty first.

A review committee appointed by the general faculties council can review the case, like the one which reduced Pridgen’s sentence. Students have the right to challenge the composition of the committee in cases of personal conflict of interest or bias.

However, if students are unhappy with their sentence, the calendar does not clearly state the next course of action.

Igras filed a submission to the board of governors last Friday for a formal hearing.

“Whether it’s a public website or private website, it really should make no difference,” said Igras. “As long as the statements are truthful, you’re entitled to voice an opinion that’s based on those truthful statements.”

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