U of C censures students for criticizing prof on Facebook, runs into Charter challenge
I heard about this story on The Current last night. This is an interesting case, for two reasons, I think.
First, there is the "free speech" issue which prompted the case:
It all started in 2007 when the twin brothers took a course on law and society taught by Aruna Mitra.
Months after the course ended, one of the students in her class started a Facebook page entitled: “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with Aruna Mitra.” Other students who had the misfortune of enrolling in her class were encouraged to share their criticisms of Mitra on the Facebook wall.
Students complained that Mitra was inept, lacked understanding and was “illogically abrasive.”
According to students, Mitra regularly made statements on a subject matter, then added “don’t quote me on that.” During one class, one student counted her saying “um” 260 times.
Enter Steven and Keith Pridgen. They both posted relatively innocuous comments on the Facebook wall. Steven Pridgen wrote, “Somehow I think she just got lazy and gave everybody a 65. That’s what I got.”
Keith wrote: “Remember when she told us she was a long-term professor? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn’t able to do it . . . Lucky us.” Keith then congratulated himself and his classmates “for leaving a Mitra-free legacy for future (law and society) students!”
It was brought up on the radio episode that website RateMyProfessors.com has been allowing these sorts of comments for years, without sanction, simply because users are anonymous. A lot was also made of the tameness of Pridgin's comments (for which he received two years academic probation). This made me think of the precarious nature of (particularly female and non-WASPy) adjunct or sessional instructors, and how vulnerable they can be to this sort of gang-up. I would expect my employer to protect me from this kind of abuse--which would account fro why Prof. Mitra has never commented on this case. The problems seem to issue from the fact that Universities seem to have no idea how to deal with social media (does anyone?)
The second interesting question, which has very broader implications, is something that the students' lawyer, Tim Boyle, introduced into the lower court's reading:
That ruling was quashed in October 2010 when Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Jo’Anne Strekaf ruled that “students should not be prevented from expressing critical opinions regarding the subject matter or quality of the teaching they are receiving.”
The U of C appealed that ruling, arguing that universities are not subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That argument has shocked most Canadians who have heard it.
Most believe that universities are — or at least should be — bastions of free expression and thought. Instead, lawyers acting on the behalf of universities, argued that universities are charter-free zones.
The University's lawyers have said that (unlike this Herald article) they are in no way arguing that Universites shouldn't be bastions of free speech: on the contrary. But their issue remains that the ruling draws no boundaries as to where the Charter applies to institutions of higher learning. The ruling finds that Universities are "quasi-governmental" institutions, and as such are subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, full-stop. That is, the Charter states that only the government is beholden to the Charter, and the court ruled that the University--which is regulated and largely funded by the Government--counts as Government.
This brings up massive questions of autonomy and practice, obviously: if the University is, essentially, an arm of government, can it set its own admission standards? Can it feasibly criticize government policy? Can its studies be seen as separate from government influence? Etc. Other Universities watching this case have now apparently sent their own resources to aid Calgary in its case, which now very much affects them too.
Did anyone else hear this case? Any lawyers/legal dabblers care to comment?