Controversy over Facebook comments continues

A University of Calgary student is seeking a judicial review of a university decision to place him on probation for non-academic misconduct charges regarding comments he made about a professor on Facebook.

A group of students conveyed their dissatisfaction with their Fall 2007 law and society 201 professor’s teaching capabilities on the Facebook group entitled “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with [instructor’s name].”

Keith Pridgen was notified that he had been charged with non-academic misconduct in the Fall of 2008.

Pridgen’s initial sentence of 24 months probation and an apology was reduced to four months and the apology requirement was removed by the General Faculties Council.

Students’ Union vice-president academic Meg Martin said these kinds of charges are removed from a student’s record after a certain period of time.

“Being on probation can entail a variety of consequences, from being barred from campus, to expulsion if you are found to have committed non-academic misconduct again within your probationary period. Usually it entails some form of developmental discipline, i.e. being asked to write a letter of apology or make some form of reparation,” said Martin.

According to Pridgen his sentence “didn’t really do anything.”

Nevertheless, Martin maintains that students should be cautious.

“Students should conduct themselves professionally on- or offline and, if they do so, will usually avoid any charges of academic or non-academic misconduct,” said Martin.

Martin added that online misconduct is a “greyer area” and that the way such cases are handled has changed a lot.

“Everything is handled centrally, initially through the office of the vice-provost student success and learning support services. On the subject of the appeal to [the Board of Governors] . . . if [Pridgen] wasn’t given an appeal hearing they didn’t feel he had grounds based on prior consideration of the case.”

Last year Pridgen’s then-lawyer Waldemar Ingras of Spier Harben Law filed a submission to the BoG for a formal hearing.

“As long as the statements are truthful, you’re entitled to voice an opinion that’s based on those truthful statements,” Ingras told the Gauntlet in 2009.

According to Pridgen the BoG summarily rejected his appeal.

“I don’t really know the reason for that,” said Pridgen. “We had a legitimate appeal on numerous grounds.”

Pridgen said he felt there was a strong bias and what he describes as “a total flaw in the system” in which lawyers from the university were representing both the university and the unbiased chair.

“They thought that it would kind of go away, and we didn’t go away and we applied for judicial review at the Court of Queen’s Bench and that was accepted,” said Pridgen.

According to Pridgen the university has hired an external law firm to deal with the case from here on in. However, this process continues to frustrate Pridgen.

“There was a deadline in November for all documents to be into the court and to us. They didn’t provide the documents until a week and a half before the court date [in February],” said Pridgen.

With only a week and a half to review 300 pages worth of documents Pridgen’s appeal was forced back until sometime in April, perhaps May.

Pridgen said he sees the university’s actions as a kind of delay tactic.

“I think they think that if they just keep this going long enough then we’ll eventually graduate and have to leave and stop talking about it, but that’s not my goal,” said Pridgen. “My goal is to make them have to listen to us and hopefully future students don’t get screwed.”

Pridgen has since switched out of the law and society program into political science.

“I felt that because of the personal nature of this case and my name with some of the higher-level administration and faculty members of communication and culture, specifically the law and society program, I would not be able to complete courses at the 3, 4 and 500 level without having to have certain individuals as instructors,” said Pridgen

Pridgen added that he felt his chances of having a reasonable GPA and graduating were in danger.

“It’s made me look at the university in a less positive light,” added Pridgen.

The university declined to comment on any individual disciplinary case, due to privacy regulations.