DOMINICK HAN/THE VARSITY

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has issued ‘F’ grades to students’ unions at U of T for policies and practices in its annual Campus Freedom Index.

The JCCF is a non-profit legal organization that describes itself as “independent and non-partisan.”

Using a five-tier grading scale, the Campus Freedom Index allocates a letter grade between ‘A’ and ‘F’ to each university for four separate categories: policies and practices for the university and policies and practices for the university’s students’ union. This year saw 240 grades handed out to 60 campuses, with only two ‘A’ grades among them. In contrast, ‘F’ grades were presented 32 times.

The ‘B’ grade assigned to U of T’s policies falls short of the ‘A’ grade handed out in 2015. In their methodology outline, JCCF states that university policies should satisfy four factors to be assigned an ‘A.’ If all four factors are reached, the ‘A’ is provided. If only three are reached, the Index rates the policy with a ‘B.’

Despite U of T’s lower grading, U of T Director of Media Relations Althea Blackburn-Evans confirmed in a conversation with The Varsity that the policy has not changed in its wording between 2015 and present.

Blackburn-Evans noted that the ‘D’ grade provided for practices is due in part to the university’s lack of public opposition to the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s (UTMSU) decision to deny club status to UTM Students for Life (UTMSFL) during the 2015–2016 year. “The UTMSU, like all recognized student groups … is entirely autonomous. Any decisions that they make are not university decisions … the university respects their autonomy and doesn’t wade into their affairs in that way,” she said.

The ‘F’ grades for student unions also centre on the UTMSU’s decision to deny club status to UTMSFL. The JCCF is also providing legal counsel to UTMSFL, which is currently in the midst of a lawsuit against the UTMSU over club recognition. In an overview explaining why the grade was provided, the JCCF stated that “Students for Life could not join other campus clubs in setting up a table during clubs’ week — a key event for recruiting new members.”

Denied access to club events and continual decisions not to apply club status to UTMSFL eventually led to a court application against UTMSU. The application alleges that the UTMSU “breached the rules of natural justice and procedural fairness, and failed to respect students’ fundamental freedoms of expression and association.”

In its press release promoting the new Campus Freedom Index, the JCCF calls out UTMSU, stating that it is one of three student unions to have actively censored free speech on campus. The release condemns UTMSU, University of Victoria Student Society, and the Ryerson Students’ Union as “the worst in Canada.”

In an email, Nour Alideeb, UTMSU President, outlined the UTMSU’s mission statement, which “safeguards the individual rights of the student, regardless of race, colour, creed, sex, nationality, place of origin, or personal or political beliefs.”

In addition, Alideeb wrote: “Our policies, bylaws and constitution reflect those priorities. The UTMSU policies, bylaws and constitution will serve those priorities and stay the same unless a full time or part time undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Mississauga comes forward with a concern.”

The report also criticizes the University of Toronto Student’s Union (UTSU) election rules. UTSU President Jasmine Wong Denike confirmed in an email that those rules were “completely rewritten last year.”

Another factor in the ‘F’ rating came from the UTSU’s anti-discrimination policies. Denike argued “the existence of anti-discrimination policies shouldn’t be controversial, as long as the policies are enforced fairly.”

Michael Kennedy, Communications and Development Coordinator for JCCF, said that with 25 out of 60 universities earning “at least one ‘F’ grade, there is clearly a widespread and pervasive threat facing free speech on campus.”

Kennedy pointed to a tendency “on the part of universities and their student unions to silence speech they disagree with.” Referencing the ongoing case with UTMSFL and the UTMSU, Kennedy noted that “student groups are being banned because their views don’t fit with the mainstream… Universities are condoning mob censorship of events discussing controversial subject matter… This is becoming the norm, not the exception.”

Blackburn-Evans — acknowledging the recent controversy surrounding Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson’s comments on gender and free speech — mentioned, “Academic freedom and freedom of speech are really at the heart of the university’s mission, and so nothing has changed in that regard. We continue to defend those principles just as vigorously as we always have. While our faculty members absolutely have the right to academic freedom and freedom of speech… they also have a responsibility to follow the law.”

Denike also echoed a commitment to free speech: “Free speech is vitally important, especially on campus, but we also need to be conscious of how hateful speech can undermine free speech.”

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