Editorial: Under threat – free speech on campus

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

The quest for free speech at the University of Calgary might not be settled for a while. After four years of battle between two students who were charged with non-academic misconduct by the U of C, Keith and Steven Pridgen, and university administration, a freedom that most students think is their right is still threatened. This case reveals a great deal about how university administration feels about free expression, and how administration thinks image is more important than the value of speaking the truth.

Keith and Steven Pridgen took a Law and Society course in 2007 taught by Aruna Mitra. After the course was over, a student started a Facebook page called “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with Aruna Mitra,” on which both Pridgens commented. According to students who took the class, Mitra, who was teaching the class for the first time, claimed that she was a full-time professor when in fact she was only a sessional instructor. She also made wildly inaccurate statements, like claiming that Magna Carta was an agreement between First Nations people and the government.

The Pridgens and other members of the class were called for a U of C disciplinary hearing, where Keith was put on probation for 24 months and both were ordered to never again post defamatory material about a member of the university community. The case went to (real) court, where a Court of Queen’s Bench judge ruled that the U of C lacks the right to prevent students from commenting on the quality of instruction they receive, because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of speech.

This month, the U of C appealed that ruling, claiming that the university is a private institution, and is thus not subject to abide by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Only the government and its organizations must obey the Charter, and, the U of C claims, it’s not a government institution, and so is exempt from following the Charter. A lawyer for the U of C claimed at the appeal that the administration must have the autonomy to discipline students how it sees fit.

Although most have taken umbrage with the U of C’s claim that it’s a private institution, in some sense the private versus public debate is not the biggest problem with this longwinded saga. What’s really at issue — the factor that caused the students to complain on the Facebook page, and that causes the Pridgens to continue fighting — is that the students weren’t given their due. They have been treated unfairly.

After all, if the administration recognized that the class was poorly run, that the instructor was unqualified to teach that class, and that her marking was unfair, this wouldn’t have become such a problem. But that’s not what happened. The university isn’t debating the veracity of the claims the Pridgens have made — no one is disputing that Mitra really said that Magna Carta was an agreement involving First Nations people. And according to the Pridgens’ lawyer, all 17 students who appealed their grades had them increased, so claims that Mitra graded the class unfairly are true.

It isn’t difficult to see how this event could have been better handled.

The U of C shouldn’t have had the goal of controlling its image down to the level of Facebook posts. It’s one thing to try to have defamatory material removed, but the U of C isn’t claiming that anything defamatory was said. The U of C also shouldn’t have had a reasonable non-academic misconduct panel in place, instead of the one the Pridgens had to endure, which involved the dean of the department (who is Mitra’s partner) participating. The conflict of interest is astounding.

But now the U of C has missed its chance. While they have made changes to the non-academic misconduct process, they can’t back out of this trial, because they will be forced to admit they went against what is sensible, within reason and just.

Administration failed to do the right thing, and now students have no way of knowing that in the future it won’t happen again. Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, administration should account for its mistakes — not because what happened was against the law, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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