Judge overturns U of C facebook ruling

A recent court ruling has brought a long running case between University of Calgary students and administration to an end. After posting criticism of an instructor on a Facebook page and facing charges of non-academic misconduct, the U of C was deemed to have no grounds to reprimand those responsible.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Jo’Anne Strekaf found that the creation of the Facebook page and the comments on it made by twin brothers Keith and Steven Pridgen did not cause harm to sessional instructor Aruna Mitra justifying non-academic misconduct charges. The ruling also established the brothers’ charter rights of free expression were infringed by the school’s review committee decisions.

“The judge actually quashed the decision of the dean and the General Faculties Council and criticized the Board of Governors for denying our right to appeal,” said Keith Pridgen. “It’s totally been quashed which is really good and the language the judge used in her ruling was also very positive.”

In her ruling Strekaf wrote, “students should not be prevented from expressing critical opinions regarding the subject matter or quality of the teaching they are receiving.”

The Pridgens’ lawyer Tim Boyle said that this ruling clearly shows the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does apply to universities, where previous court decisions had allowed administration to interpret what did or did not apply on campus.

“We now know with certainty that the charter will apply to universities in its process of meting out sanctions against its students for misconduct,” said Boyle. “The other part of the decision that maybe hasn’t been picked up by the press that much is that the university also failed on good old fashioned administrative law grounds. That is, their procedure was flawed, it was unfair and it was found to have been unreasonable.”

In 2007, the Pridgen brothers took a law and society 201 course with Mitra. There were initially over a dozen students charged with non-academic misconduct because if their involvement in the “I no longer fear hell, I took a course with Aruna Mitra” Facebook page, which declared that Mitra had poor ability as an instructor with no grasp of the material.

Four students chose to appeal the probation, of which Pridgen originally received 24 months. The General Faculties Council reduced the probation period and removed the request that Pridgen write an apology letter to Mitra, a decision that the Pridgen brothers wanted to appeal again. The Board of Governors, the highest governing body at the U of C, chose not to hear this appeal which finally went before the Queen’s Bench.

Pridgen explained he has been working for the last three years towards eliminating any record of wrong-doing at the U of C since being found guilty of non-academic misconduct.

Pridgen said that by the time he had created the Facebook page he had exhausted all other options.

“This is definitely the last avenue that we pursued,” said Pridgen. “We talked with the instructor herself, we talked with the associate dean of the faculty, we filled out our USRI evaluations, we approached the professor numerous times.”

Boyle said the student reaction to the quality of instruction was inevitable.

“She was put into a course for which she was not qualified, she had no business being there in the first place. She was parachuted in there at the last moment apparently and it was a disaster,” said Boyle. “When the students complained, as any rational human being would want to do, rather than the university looking at it and doing something constructive about it they decided to use this heavy hand approach and simply muscle the students and send a signal out to all other students that if you try this you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

U of C senior communications manager James Stevenson said the school was unable to comment on specific cases of student discipline due to legal obligations of privacy protection.

“We are reviewing our options in light of the ruling and assessing the impact of the decision on our operations,” Stevenson said.

Since the issue was raised the university has modified its policy.

Under 4.9 of the U of C’s non-academic misconduct policy in “minor violations” the policy states, “engaging in communication toward an individual or group which may be considered harassing or offensive (including online communication)” can be grounds for punishment.

Students’ Union vice-president academic Alyssa Stacy said that although the SU is happy with the decision, the process has made it clear that the university must do a better job defining what constitutes a violation of campus policy on harassment and offense. Students need clearer directions on how to give feedback.

“I don’t think that students really feel like, for instance, the USRIs or any of those mechanisms are actually listening to student feedback,” said Stacy. “There needs to be some mechanism put in place students know about that they can actually harness these feelings in a more productive way.”

Stacy said the U of C’s USRI program or sites like ratemyprofessor.com are the only avenues for feedback most students have. Many are uncomfortable leaving non-anonymous comments for fear of reprisal.

“Students feel like they can’t give some of their comments on to the USRIs without being penalized,” said Stacy. “This situation kind of shows the perspective that administration will penalize them if they do give back negative feedback.”

Pridgen said that after three and a half years of appeal he encourages other students that feel frustrated with their instructors to speak up.

“Follow the most appropriate tracks first but don’t avoid voicing your opinion on a public forum like Facebook simply out of fear that the professor might find out,” said Pridgen. “Of course don’t be libelous, don’t be defamatory and don’t incite violence against the professor but feel free to say what you want to say about not only the professor but whatever you want to. I mean this is Canada, right?”

The university has not said if they will appeal the decision.

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