Do CUS Punishments Threaten our Academic Freedom?

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BY WALTER DICK, LAW I

The results for ‘Frosh Week Controversy of 2013’ are in and the the BCom students have taken it by a landslide. The Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS) raised some eyebrows with a misogynistic cheer embracing ravaging non-consenting minors during their frosh week events.

Among the backlash the CUS is facing has come another form of backlash. That is, backlash against the backlash. A philosophy professor by the name of Mark Mercer wrote an article in the Ubyssey entitled “Sanctions against CUS set a dangerous precedent”. Mercer claims that by punishing the students involved, UBC is setting a dangerous precedent which threatens our academic freedom. I respectfully disagree.

Now first off, I want to make something clear. I value academic freedom a lot. I value the right of anyone to make any kind of argument, no matter how ludicrous or offensive. I embrace discussing people’s values and have little tolerance for restrictions on freedom of speech. In other words, I am extremely sympathetic to Mr. Mercer’s project of keeping our university administrators  from censoring our professors, and most importantly, our students.

Despite my sympathies to his cause, after reading about the specifics of the incident, I cannot help but feel he’s being a little too philosophical to dress up the CUS controversy into an academic freedom issue. Why? Because it has nothing to do with academic freedom and everything to do with inappropriate behaviour during a university frosh event.

Mr. Mercer starts by talking about the issue of freedom of speech and how the CUS’s freedom is being violated by university reprimands. Firstly, it is possible that the chant was so offensive so as to actually constitute hate speech and could be a reasonable limit on our s.2 Charter rights. But Mercer fails to make a key distinction; this is not the Supreme Court of Canada, this is a university administrative tribunal! Free speech might be a guaranteed Charter right, but that does not mean your speech is free from the scrutiny and subsequent reprimand from the academic institution you are attending (and possibly acting as a frosh leader for). We as students understand we cannot freely shout obscenities during professors’ lectures. So I think it’s important to make note of the broader social context of the university and why the same “free speech rights” that we ought to recognize legally might differ from the real free speech rights we can exercise in a university environment without getting into trouble.

That being said, obviously the university still needs to recognize the freedom of speech of their students and their professors. UBC has a mixed record on this account, with the APEC controversy of 1997 where a student protest ended up drawing a severe police presence and the extensive use of pepper spray, and in 2009 with the UBC catching the attention of the BC Civil Liberties Association by preventing students from putting posters in their dorm windows. But we also have to recognize that a misogynistic rape chant is not exactly a typical free speech issue, and certainly comes very far from any commonly understood notion of “academic freedom”.

Mercer warns us that university administrators will never be able to recognize the difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech; a typical “don’t let them open the flood gates” argument. Maybe he’s right, but if he is, we should hire some smarter administrators that are capable of making this distinction. Moreover, there may be reasonable limits on academic freedom in the university context. But I think most of us would agree that there are definitely reasonable limits on freedom of speech in the university context; and screaming “O is for oh soo tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent,” qualifies as a reasonable limit during a frosh event.

I respectfully disagree with Mr. Mercer’s plea for the university administrators to keep their noses out of the CUS’s business. The university’s reprimands seem reasonable and the suggestion that there be no reprimand (and possibly no response at all from the university?) seems unreasonable. The students willingly participated in an offensive chant that celebrates sexual violence against women. Maybe, as some commerce students have commented, it’s all in good fun – just a chance for the BComs to bond. But should they really be bonding through an offensive misogynistic chant, even if it is intended to be facetious? And is a university frosh event really the right context for such a chant? Is there any right context for such a chant?

Speech is not free when you are acting on behalf of the university. Students that volunteer for roles as frosh leaders ought to know that there is a standard of behaviour they are supposed to abide by. Speech that might stand as completely legal in a SCC trial could still be sanctioned by the university administration. Rightfully so.

The university has good place to speak up. While I agree that they should not be going on a witch hunt to punish and ruin the lives of the students involved, demanding the whole CUS to do community service and learn more about sexual violence is a great idea in its own right, and this kind of behaviour is a clear sign that the commerce students need more education on the matter. And hey, if a few of the frosh leaders that were proudly cheering about going to jail for sexually assaulting minors want to resign, I say let them.

 

6 thoughts on “Do CUS Punishments Threaten our Academic Freedom?

    • Thanks for commenting Julian. I inferred from the “OH soo tight” phrase in the cheer, they were most likely referring to women, but I suppose it could be applicable to men as well. Moreover, since women are much more often the targets of sexual violence, the chant seems more marginalizing of women than men.

      Besides, encouraging sexual violence in a gender neutral way is still offensive anyways.

      P.S. I should have said Dr. Mercer, him being a phd and all. Point well taken.

    • Julian, anyone who doesn’t see gender or mysogyny in this chant would never make it as a lawyer. The law gives effect to common sense.

  1. This is spot on, Walter. UBC has the right to say, “No, we are NOT about sexually assaulting women.”

    There’s a great case you’ll learn in second term Constitutional Law called McKinney v University of Guelph, 1990 SCC. It stands for the idea that the Charter does not apply to universities because they have a tradition of academic independence. It also stands for other things that I won’t get into here.

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