Canadian SU at the Forefront of Battle for Free Speech

Concordia Bans Political Debate November 20, 2002

As a member of the Athabasca University Students’ Union, I am very interested in the activities of other students’ unions – especially those that represent students of Canadian universities.

Students’ unions do not operate by a set list of activities, programs, or initiatives. Instead, we have guiding principles, and ethical and financial responsibilities that help us to determine what we can, and cannot do. Largely, however, the actions of a students’ union are determined by the needs and wants of the student body that they represent. Like any elected, representative body, we look to our members for our mandate, and to determine what our students need most.

Because of this, every students’ union will have unique programs and services, based on the overall needs of the student body. Some schools primarily cater to mature students; others specialize in only a few faculties. These factors, as well as differences in the regional location of the university and the number of students who are funded vs. those who are self-funded, are all factors that influence the needs of the students.

Nevertheless, there are certain needs that all students share, and these are the areas in which most student unions will function most similarly. Scholarships; bursaries; conference funding; advocacy in matters of disagreement with the University; and watch-dogging of changes to government and school polices effecting tuition, entrance requirements, and marking norms; are needs common to students everywhere. Accordingly, most students unions have programs and initiatives in place to address these concerns.

Another area of similarity between students’ unions are the basic principles of education, free-speech, human rights, and the need for a safe and effective learning environment. These are basic human needs, but also they are very specifically the foundations of education and the freedom of thought that a quality education should imbue. Students’ unions should work to protect these basic rights whenever possible.

The right to free speech is arguably the most valued by students all over the world. Countless times, it has been the students of oppressed nations that have launched the most vocal protests, and sometimes – as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, [see: http://www.christusrex.org/www1/sdc/tiananmen.html] or The University Of British Columbia in APEC Summit in 1997 – these students have been the victims of violent oppression. In the case of Tiananmen Square, the brave protests of students lead to a violent attack by the Chinese army, but also bolstered the fight against communism within China. So often, students have lead the way to social reform, because universities are a forum where free speech and free thinking are supposed to be nurtured and prized.

In oppressed countries, students’ unions are often at the forefront of political protests. In North America, however, we have it easier. Free speech is valued in Canada and the United States, and students are thought to be free to say and think whatever they like.

Perhaps it is time to rethink this belief, however. Is Canada really a paragon of free-speech and human rights? The University Of British Columbia case, mentioned above, should have led us to reconsider this. For those who do not recall, on the day of summit meetings: “Using pepper spray and police dogs, the RCMP and Vancouver police repelled student protesters from the security areas surrounding the APEC site at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday. By the end of the day roughly 40 students were arrested and many more injured, including one who was hospitalized due the use of pepper spray” [see: http://www.langara.bc.ca/voice/112797.html].

This didn’t sound like something that should happen in Canada. What is even more uncharacteristic of Canadians, however, was the general apathy of the populace after the events were broadcast on television. The injured students later filed multiple complaints against the government, but despite significant television coverage of the hearing, people seemed disinterested.

Perhaps this is because they felt that this could not have really happened in Canada? Maybe many felt that the students must have done something more than just protest, in order to have received such violent treatment.

Whatever people thought, it is getting harder and harder to believe that Canada is not actively oppressing the free-speech rights of students. Canadian students’ unions are beginning to face battles that they never expected.

This week, Concordia University in Montreal sought and was granted an injunction to prevent NDP MPs Svend Robinson and Libbie Davies from speaking at the university about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The university has imposed a moratorium on all public events related to the middle-east conflict since September 9th of this year, when “Montreal riot police used pepper spray and tear gas inside Concordia University against Palestinian solidarity demonstrators” [ see: http://www.montrealmuslimnews.net/jaggisept9.htm].

The students’ union of Concordia has opposed this ban, and set up this week’s event in order to challenge it. However, the university went to court and was granted an injunction to block the event. The students’ union has decided not to pursue legal action at this time [see: http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2002/11/15/concordia021115].

I imagine that the students’ union is more than a little bewildered. This is not the type of challenge that most SUs have had to face in Canada, and there is little precedent for how to deal with it. It is difficult to believe that Canadian courts have allowed a university to stop an event based on its subject matter, especially when there are so many other ways that the university can ensure the safety of those who attend.

Before even considering banning these events, the university could have instead hired additional security to ensure that things did not get out of hand. The students’ union might have been willing to cover part of all of the security costs, as the purpose of that security would be to ensure the safety of union members. The university had other options as well, including asking for police assistance, and educating students about the importance of peaceful protests.

The students of today are our future, and they will have to face many difficult issues now and in later life. It is imperative to our country, and the world, that we educate our students not only academically, but also socially. To ban events that might lead to conflict, gives students little opportunity to learn how to deal with conflicting viewpoints, and the importance of free-speech, even by those who they disagree with. It also means that a large number of students will suffer because of the actions of a small number of violent offenders.

If the university can ban an event based on its subject matter, then what is next? They might decide to ban all political events, just in case. Because universities are one of the most common forums for political discussion, this would seriously limit the availability of such forums. Clearly students’ unions at all schools should watch this case very carefully, because the oppression of students ability to speak publicly is becoming more and more common, and neither the government, nor the general population seem to be very concerned. Once we begin forbidding political discussion at universities, however, how long will it be before police are hired just to prevent citizens from uttering anti-government sentiments? It might sound absurd, but there is some evidence that this is exactly what happened at the APEC summit, and because the public outcry was so minimal, it may become more common.

I suggest we all watch the proceedings at Concordia very carefully indeed.

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.

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