Student unions are, ideally, democratically elected bodies that advocate for the interests and address the needs of their student electorates. In turn, students should be able to hold unions accountable for those democratic processes, interests, and needs.
However, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), which is responsible for the 14,000 undergraduate students at UTSC, fell short of this ideal last year, with a number of controversial decisions.
In November, a SCSU emergency Board of Directors (BoD) meeting rejected the addition of a motion on online voting for SCSU elections to the Annual General Meeting (AGM) agenda. Online voting is already used by the University of Toronto Students’ Union and could have served to address voter apathy during elections.
Toward the end of the semester, the BoD voted to give an additional $4,500 of funding to the UTSC Women’s and Trans Centre (WTC) for its annual conference, even though the increase was rejected at the AGM. Evidently, the judgment of the SCSU does not align with the will of the electorate.
Most recently, and most controversially, the BoD unanimously voted on a motion to move toward controlling student media accreditation and access to meetings. Director of Political Science Raymond Dang, who moved the item, accused student media of misrepresentation and misinformation, without providing specific examples of such coverage. However, the motion clearly targets The Varsity and The Underground, which covered the controversial WTC motion, also moved by Dang.
The SCSU has mischaracterized the student media as having published “false information,” which is certainly not the case. In reality, this is an attempt by the SCSU to censor and limit the student press’ ability to freely and independently cover student bodies, especially with coverage that exposes controversial decisions and is critical of those in power.
Even though the SCSU plans to make decisions on media access based on the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics standards, the CAJ has described the SCSU’s actions as undemocratic and called for U of T’s student unions to “abandon their attempts to block journalists from covering public meetings.”
In choosing to control the media’s coverage of vital public meetings, the SCSU compromises its own integrity and credibility. It illustrates its efforts to prevent the publication of material that it views as a threat to its own agenda. It opens the door to actions and decisions without accountability, and could potentially lead to the misuse of power. Without free discussion and criticism of authority, the electorate is left less informed.
The SCSU must earnestly make improvements in its governance and rectify the issues that truly matter. Controlling the press is a distraction from the real purpose and role of student unions: to answer the pressing interests and needs of students. The SCSU has continually made poor and irresponsible decisions, including the WTC motion and inaction regarding incidences of food safety at UTSC.
The role of the student press in exposing these shortcomings has been critical and should inspire the SCSU to do better. As CAJ President Karyn Pugliese stated, “No government is above the law and journalists, including student journalists, have the constitutionally protected right to hold any and all governments to account on matters of public interest.”
If student unions like the SCSU are to uphold their commitment to democracy, they must recognize that the student press’ freedom and independence are central to student democracy. The SCSU must trust the student media as journalists who are obligated to fair, objective, and truthful reporting for the public, not misinformation.
To the SCSU: retract your motion to control student media and focus on competently addressing the issues that matter to students.
Michael Phoon is a second-year Journalism student at UTSC. He is The Varsity’s UTSC Affairs Columnist.