Sophia Topper
The Silhouette

It’s report card time, but not for students. On Sept. 24, the Justice Center for Constitutional Reforms published its annual report on freedom of speech on Canadian campuses.  The report grades both administrations and student unions on their policies and actions.

The McMaster administration received a B for policy, and a D for its actions. These grades are largely due to the discrepancies between the Statement on Academic Freedoms and the Student Code of Conduct, as well as various other anti-discrimination policies. To receive an A, an institution must have "no prohibition on speech which a listener might find ‘offensive, ‘discriminatory’, ‘disrespectful’, ‘inappropriate’, or ‘creating a negative environment.’”

The grading methods, however, are controversial. Gord Arbeau, Director of Public and Community Relations for McMaster, stated that “there does not appear to be a clear connection between grades and the university.” He also noted that “this was the first [the University] had heard of the report…[JCCF] did not attempt to contact anyone at the university to discuss our approach.”

Indeed, the incident that the report centered on, where students were prevented from displaying an “Israeli Apartheid” banner, was in 2008, despite the fact that this is an annual report.

President of JCCF, John Carpay, revealed that for the University or the McMaster Students Union to improve their grades, they would need to release a public statement apologizing for their handling of prior incidences, or to “reverse existing policies.”

Arbeau reputed that the University has “clear commitments” to both the principles of free speech and of ending discrimination, and continued that the Statement on Academic Freedoms and Student Code of Conduct “rely on and inform each other.”

The MSU received Cs for both policy and action. Their grades were also based on the “Israeli Apartheid” incident, and the report alleges that the MSU bases their decisions on allowing free speech on the Human Rights and Equality Services office. It also draws attention to MSU’s policy on advertising and promotion, and accuses the MSU of wording it such that it could be used to censor clubs.

David Campbell, MSU President, describes the conflict between harassment prevention and freedom of speech as “difficult, that’s the crux of the issue…[but] we feel very confident in our policies.”

He also defended the MSU’s use of Human Rights and Equality Services in an advisory capacity, and responded that he didn’t find the JCCF’s critique “quite fair.”

“[Human Rights and Equality Services] doesn’t dictate any outcomes… the final decision rests with us,” he said. “[But] they do have expertise in the field”.

Despite the JCCF’s criticisms, both McMaster and the MSU received passing grades, unlike 51% of Canadian public universities. McMaster’s grades have been stagnant for the last two years, and neither the University nor the MSU is eager to revamp their policies by removing bans on discriminatory language.  Without a single university attaining an A average, it seems like McMaster will keep surfing the grade curve.

Photo credit: Silhouette stock photo

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