Striking a balance

Student councils must decide where to draw the line on free speech

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Sheep with derogatory names

When Nolan Lund returned to school from the winter break, he and other members of the Western New Democrats discovered the stand displaying their club’s monthly magazine in the University Community Centre had vanished.

After contacting the University Students’ Council, the New Democrats were given various reasons why the stand was removed, including it was a fire hazard, the publication had not been submitted 21 days in advance as required by USC policy and the magazine competed with advertising space for The Gazette.

Lund, the club’s membership officer, attributed the stand’s removal to something else " blatant censorship on behalf of the USC.

Rich Caccamo, USC VP-student events, overseas clubs as part of his portfolio. He said the publication was removed because it had not been approved by the USC, a policy he said many clubs do not seem to understand.

This is not the first time clubs and student councils have butted heads over the issue of free speech on a university campus. In fact, deciding where to draw the line over what clubs can do and say has been a recurring issue at universities across the country.

Paris Meilleur, a research associate with the Education Policy Institute, said the key is to encourage academic political discussions, but contain them within a safe atmosphere.

“There is no better place for political discussions than on a university campus ... but there’s a safe way to do that,” she said.

Meilleur was VP-education on the USC Board of Directors in 2006, when a series of complaints led to the deratification of a USC club, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights.

Controversy began in 2004 over a mock security barrier wall in the UCC atrium. The mock wall, erected by SPHR, was deemed offensive and resulted in sanctions and an eventual deratification of the club. An anonymous complainant to the USC Clubs Policy Committee believed a map drawn on the wall, with “Palestine” written in Arabic, was an anti-Israeli symbol.

Smoking a pipe in front of UCC

Matt Fisher, former president of the Israel Action Committee from 2004 to 2005, said SPHR’s primary goal at that time was to show discord on campus by inflaming tensions between students regarding the Middle East conflict.

“In the end, SPHR’s antagonistic and extremist positions did not enamour them to Western’s students, who were thankfully more interested in respectful discourse than the incitement and rhetoric that was SPHR’s hallmark.”

Former SPHR President Rasha El-Tawil was baffled at the controversy that occurred due to the mock wall.

“Were we trying to stir up any hatred on campus? Obviously not,” she said. “But were we trying to stir up political debate and awareness and make people conscious of what’s going on around them in the world? For sure.”

El-Tawil added the wall had been given the go-ahead by the USC prior to its erection in the UCC atrium.

“From our perspective, it may have been individuals or groups who didn’t want [SPHR] on campus... [And] some lobbying from them resulted in ultimately the deratification,” she said.

Situations like this grant student councils the difficult task of deciding where to draw the line on free speech. The Lakehead University Student Union took a proactive approach last semester when it made constitutional amendments to its clubs policy, stating campus clubs must ensure their messages are “positive” and cannot be deemed offensive or in bad taste to any identifiable group.

In addition, members of a club are not allowed to impose their beliefs or practices on others without consent.

The new amendments have put Life Support, a Lakehead pro-life group in a bind.

Coming out of the closet display

“If you’re talking about the issue of abortion, you can’t mention that it’s wrong,” Life Support President Francisco Gomez said. The group has little hope of being ratified as a club since its core beliefs could be deemed out of line with the student union’s policy.

Outright banning of certain topics may not be the best approach to campus advocacy groups, according to Meilleur.

“When you stifle any sort of debate and deny a group the opportunity to voice their opinions, that group will almost always become more radical,” she said.

Anna Wease, LUSU VP-student issues, had little to say on the issue.

“At this time there is ongoing talks about what it means and how it will affect our campus,” she said.

The current situation at Lakehead is not unusual. Pro-life groups across the country have faced challenges in getting their message out, with campuses such as Memorial University to the University of Victoria denying pro-life groups official club status.

However, the USC ratified a pro-life club just last year. Tammy Caron, president of Western Lifeline, said the ratification process was smooth and uneventful.

“We plan events, keeping in mind the controversial nature of Lifeline, but also recognizing that a university campus is meant to be a place where ideas are challenged,” Caron said.

Caccamo assured that clubs have a good chance of being ratified if they meet necessary criteria.

“We’re not here to deny the truth even if it hurts. Any student organization has every right to express their personal beliefs, values and perspectives in a civilized manner.”

However, some clubs find the regulations of the USC to be overly binding. Joshua Ferguson opted for a grassroots organization rather than a USC club when he founded Standing Against Queer Discrimination, a London-based queer activist group. For Ferguson, director of SAQD, being a USC club meant a lack of control and autonomy.

Homophobia kills demonstration

“The USC doesn’t really accommodate political campaigns within their membership,” he said. “The USC itself is known for not being political around the country.”

Caccamo explained the role of the USC is to advocate on behalf of all. “I don’t think it’s in the USC’s interest to take a side. Remaining non-partisan ... that’s what a government should do.”

Meilleur emphasized the importance of offering a voice to all groups.

“A well functioning club system is a way to build a community,” she said. “Whether it’s a pro-life group, or [Students Taking Action Now: Darfur], I would defend both of their rights to exist.”

Share this article on:

Facebook | DiggDigg |

Copyright © 2008 The Gazette