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The Campus Freedom Index Is Not What It Seems

By Laurent Bastien Corbeil

Illustration of Lady Justice holding scales in front of a maple leaf

MONTREAL – There’s nothing as dangerous as the press release in journalism. Press releases are engaging, easy to read, and they can summarize massive amounts of data. This is why newsrooms find them particularly attractive. Instead of scanning through hundreds of pages of information, a reporter can easily quote a single passage in a press release and save valuable time.

So, what’s so dangerous about them? Some groups know how newsrooms operate. They know how easy it is to hide crucial information about their activities with a dishonest press release. And when they succeed, the media becomes a loudspeaker for their potentially harmful agenda.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) is a group that seems to have mastered the art of the deceitful press release, and so far, the media has failed to call them out on it. Their annual Campus Freedom Index is billed as a “report which measures the state of free speech at 45 Canadian public universities.” To do this, the JCCF says it investigates instances where they believe students’ rights were curtailed and documents them in a nearly 250-page report. So far, the report has been widely cited by media organizations as an objective, nonpartisan measure of the state of free speech on university campuses. But it’s obvious that very few people have bothered to read the document.

In its report, the JCCF defends hate speech even when it takes the form of harassment. For instance, the group criticizes Cape Breton University for “fining one of its professors, Dr. David Mullan, for telling a student he considered homosexuality an ‘unnatural lifestyle.’” The JCCF fails to tell the full story, however. In a letter filed to the university’s Human Rights Officer, the student in question not only alleges that Dr. Mullan made a homophobic remark, but that the professor had placed him in a “potentially harmful position in [his] place of work” and that his repeated homophobic insults were perceived as a “direct threat to [the student’s] personal safety.” The administration sided against the professor and determined that the student was being harassed. Because of this incident, which has nothing to do with free speech, Cape Breton University was given an F for its “free speech practices” by the JCCF.

In another instance, the JCCF takes issue with McGill University’s Safe Space Program. According to McGill, the Safe Space Program offers workshops to students on queer and Trans* issues in order to “foster the acceptance and integration of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.” But for the JCCF, the program is “a slippery slope for restricting free speech, as a result of emphasis on appropriate verbal expression.”

Of course, there’s nothing that demonstrates how free speech was curtailed as a result of the program, and the JCCF doesn’t provide any examples. The report simply states: “The workshop ‘educates’ participants on hurtful words, and challenge homophobic or racist comments and jokes. As a result, people in areas with Safe Space plaques will reprimand anyone making inappropriate comments.” It’s not clear what the JCCF means by “reprimand” and why calling someone out for behaving inappropriately would be considered as a threat to free speech. But this doesn’t stop the group from giving McGill a “D.” It seems that for the JCCF, free speech is only a right for bigots and homophobes and a privilege for others.

There’s also a lot to say about the JCCF’s obsession with abortion. The report meticulously documents every instance where pro-life activists felt wronged – no matter how insignificant – and their report often reads like a rant against abortion. Moreover, pro-life websites such as are routinely cited as reliable sources. It isn’t surprising, then, to see that the group applied their usual double standard to the issue. On one hand, the JCCF supports “anti-disruption” policies to dissuade students from engaging in “blocking, obstruction, suppression or interruption of speech with which they disagree.” On the other, it defends pro-life activists whenever they used tactics that could easily be classified as a “disruption.” In one instance, the report criticizes Simon Fraser University for shutting down a pro-life display that featured graphic images comparing abortion to the Holocaust. Since the display was located at a “high-traffic location” on campus, it is hard to see why this wasn’t considered a “disruption” by the JCCF.

Even more worrying is the fact that the group delegitimizes any kind of counter-protest. After students protested the screening of the pro-life film “Echoes of the Holocaust” at McGill University in 2009, the JCCF complained that campus security had condoned the disruption by taking “no action to silence the protesters.” If the JCCF cares so much about free speech, then why does it want to silence protesters?

It’s likely that Canadian universities aren’t a great place for freedom of expression, but if this is the case, then it certainly isn’t because of the examples documented in the Campus Freedom Index. When the group releases another one of its reports next year, the media would do well to label the JCCF for what it is: a right-wing organization with a very obvious agenda. Students deserve to know if their rights are being infringed upon, and unfortunately, the JCCF isn’t the right group for the job. But the more we discredit their biased ranking, the easier it will be for others to come up with an alternative – one that accurately measures the state of free speech in higher education.

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Laurent Bastien Corbeil

McGill student, former intern @maisonneuvemag and news editor @mcgilldaily. I'll be interning @torontostar this summer.

Catch up with me @BastienLaurent.

higher education





November 18, 2013

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