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Universities may be shrinking freedom of expression
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Universities may be shrinking freedom of expression

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 Courtesy of:  http://www.canada.com

CALGARY — Freedom of expression is under attack on Canada's university campuses, according to speakers Saturday at a national civil liberties conference at the University of Calgary.

The RightsWatch conference, now in its third year, brought together academics, activists and legal professionals for two days of debate and discussion.

Former University of Calgary Students’ Union president Charlotte Kingston said she’s seen disputes on several university campuses — ranging from Memorial University of Newfoundland’s decision to deny club status to a pro-life group in 2007 to the uproar over the cancellation of a speech by American right-wing politician Ann Coulter during a visit to the University of Ottawa in 2010.

“We’ve seen several campuses misunderstand their role as representatives by asserting policy of which views they consider tolerable and views which they don’t,” Kingston said.

Two other panel members cited recent examples at the University of Calgary.

Calgary lawyer John Carpay referenced an ongoing legal battle between the university and Campus Pro-Life Club members who were found guilty of non-academic misconduct for putting up graphic posters related to abortions in 2008. Carpay, the students’ lawyer, said the university has threatened the group’s right to freedom of speech.

“The moment that an authority starts to weigh in to determine what content is or is not acceptable, that’s the moment that we as citizens have lost our freedom of expression,” Carpay said.

An appeal was filed to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in April 2011.

“Rights need to be fought for to be maintained,” said Carpay, who’s also president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. “They tend to whither unless they’re actively defended.

“Free speech is under serious attack,” he added. “If all citizens remain silent and there are no conferences, papers and speeches, then it’s going to whither away slowly and die a silent death. That would be disastrous for our society.”

Calgary lawyer Colin Feasby detailed another case, this one involving two University of Calgary students who were censured for posting disparaging remarks about a professor on Facebook.

Twins Keith and Steven Pridgen were charged with non-academic misconduct, but the charge was overturned by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.

“Universities have a fundamental conflict of interest when they regulate speech on campus,” Feasby said.

The university filed its own appeal last November.

A U of C spokesperson could not be reached for comment.