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Some of the most exciting thinking and doing in Canada is taking place at the country's colleges and universities, where young people of different backgrounds, interests and politics come together to debate and learn about our world. Campus Notes examines issues confronting higher education through our students, teachers, workers and graduates.

Battle of the blog: Fighting for freedom of speech at Carleton University

| December 4, 2015
Battle of the blog: Fighting for freedom of speech at Carleton University

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It's only my third week as rabble's blogs intern and already the demands of the position have struck close to home. This week, I found myself investigating allegations of academic muzzling at Carleton University --my own school.

It's a strange thing to witness, having spent three years here patiently learning the virtues of openness and transparency in the journalism program. It seems the importance of free speech is a lesson the school's board of governors has forgotten.

The board is attempting to enact a new policy that will forbid its members from speaking publicly about the meetings they attend -- all meetings, whether they are in-camera or publicly viewable. It's a move that has outraged the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Representing about 68,000 teachers and academic professionals, the association unanimously passed a motion condemning Carleton's board in a meeting on Nov.29.

The action may seem strong, but it's matched equally by that taken by the university.  The proposed policy doesn't just muzzle board members for their term -- it mandates complete confidentiality even once a member leaves the board. They can take their silence to the grave, it seems.

It's a strong statement and not one without a price -- if the university proceeds with the ban, CAUT may invoke censure. It's a scarcely used measure that Executive Director David Robinson describes as "essentially, a kind of academic boycott."

If a university is censured, members of the academic community are encouraged not to apply for its teaching positions, accept its awards or honours, or attend its conferences. It is a warning reserved for only the most extreme conflicts. "Censure is used very rarely," says Robinson. "The last time it was used was, I think, about 10 years ago, and prior to that, I think it was another 15, maybe 20 years."

One man stands at the heart of the matter. Root Gorelick, a biology professor and one of two elected faculty representatives on the board, has been blogging about open meetings since 2013. He says he's been warned more than once about his writing and he remains the only board member to refuse to sign onto the new edict.

"It's absolutely absurd," he says. "It's a public institution. There are supposed to be open meetings. We're supposed to be able to talk about such things."

The school's opinion differs significantly. According to Steven Reid, a university spokesperson, "it is inappropriate and not in the best interests of the university for a governor to comment in any forum, including print, social or electronic media of any form outside a meeting of the board or one of its committees, on matters considered or discussed by the board or any of its committees."

Blogging in particular was singled out, though Reid did not name specific individuals. "Personal blogs that attack fellow governors and university staff and dissent on matters the board has decided are simply inconsistent with the role of a governor," he wrote.

However, if Gorelick is to be believed, blogging may be the only way his constituents can stay informed. He says the board has been increasingly reluctant to share its plans with the wider university community. "Reporters can't show up unless they ask for special permission, and even then they haven't been," he says. "I tried to bring a Charlatan (Carleton's student paper) reporter in once, and they were still excluded. So [blogging] is the only outlet, it's the only way for the university community to know what the board is doing."

In a statement to the Ottawa Citizen on Nov. 30, Carleton stated the open meetings are accessible to the public through a live broadcast that is streamed on campus. Additionally, the school noted "a limited number of individuals from the public who have sought permission are able to attend the open session of the meeting in person."

Until recently, community members have been able to attend board meetings. In April, the board's executive decided to disallow community attendance in favour of the live stream.

Carleton may be violating more than just freedom of speech. According to Friskjen van Veldhoven, President of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association, the university may also be violating an agreement with the school's faculty. "Under the current collective bargaining, we have a right to be able to communicate with our members, as well as with the public in terms of issues that are being raised at the board of governors," she said.

Robinson says he's been aware of a number of issues pertaining to Carleton's board. He says he thinks the current controversy is indicative of something larger -- namely, a broken governance system. "I don't really think that the board is responsive to, or reflective of the community it's supposed to serve," he says. "I think the board of governors doesn't like when people disagree with what they're doing, whether its students holding signs or disrupting the meeting or journalists asking questions after a board meeting. And I think what they're trying to do is shut down any dissent."

Right now, Gorelick remains on the board and says he will continue to blog. Carleton, facing a host of media attention, has issued corrective statements of its own pertaining to what it calls "inaccuracies" in articles published by the Ottawa Sun and Ottawa Citizen. It's shaping up to be a battle of words, and it could stay that way, as long as the board doesn't move against Gorelick.

But if recent events are anything to go by, we should be grateful. For once, the board is very consciously trying to communicate to the public. If only it were by choice. 

Jen Halsall is a journalism student based in Ottawa and the rabble.ca blogs intern.

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