In a recent trend, Canadian campuses are suppressing free speech more than ever, and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), an Atlas Network partner based in Calgary, Canada, is fighting back. “Universities are supposed to be the sanctuary of critical inquiry, reasoned debate, and the free exchange of ideas, said Michael Kennedy, director of communications and development for JCCF. “And yet, increasingly, universities and student unions are choosing to censor any discourse that might be considered offensive to some, or one.”
Kennedy worries that Canadian universities are shifting their purpose from sanctuaries of critical inquiry to over-policed spaces of political correctness and group-think. With its legal team, the beginnings of a new free-speech video series, and the Campus Freedom Index, Kennedy and his colleagues at JCCF are taking action
In its mission to “make free speech cool again,” JCCF has collected data and produced video content designed to educate young people on the historical significance of individual liberty. Its most recent video captures students’ responses to a recent event, in which a campus video game club was forced to remove posters featuring an image of a game controller shaped like a toy gun. JCCF knows that this instance is indicative of a larger, dangerous trend.
Kennedy urges students to imagine what would (or would not) have happened to great social movements of the past without free speech. What would have come, for example, of the abolitionist or suffrage movements if individuals lacked the freedom to express their points of view? JCCF’s goal is to encourage students to embrace free speech, despite its discomfort.
JCCF also produces a Campus Freedom Index, which has been published annually since 2011. With this index, the organization shines a spotlight on the best and worst universities for free speech in Canada. Prospective college students may reference this index when choosing the educational environment to suit themselves. However, for a truly educational environment, a university must allow dissenting opinions on campus.
JCCF offers its capable legal team to students fighting for free speech on campus, with a track record of success. Recently, JCCF filed a court application on behalf of Students for Life, a group at Brandon University (BU). Students for Life has been active at BU since 2012. In November of 2015, the BU Student Union revoked Students for Life’s student group status, without any warning or reason. In fact, Students for Life did not even realize it had been involuntarily disbanded until two months later. Without its official club status, Students for Life has found it almost impossible to organize events, invite speakers, sponsor debates, or table on campus. When the BU Student Union finally offered a reason for this sudden decision, they claimed it was that Students for Life’s message had made some others “uncomfortable.” JCCF was eager and ready to take this court action as far as necessary, in order to protect the free expression rights of Students for Life and filed a court application against the Students' Union. In the face of significant public attention, and the Justice Centre’s carefully prepared legal briefs, the Students’ Union backed down. The court action was settled on August 24, 2016, and the Students' Union agreed in writing to reverse its 2015 decision revoking Students for Life’s student group status and to recognize Students for Life an official student group in the 2016-2017 school year.
The Justice Centre's Campus Freedom Index shows that half of Canada's public universities are failing to uphold free expression on campus.
Kennedy concludes that “Our civil liberties, and especially our freedom of speech, form the bedrock of any truly free society. We need to remind young students about this and encourage them to embrace free speech, for all its discomfort.”