|Student Union Policies
|Student Union Practices
The University of Alberta (“UAlberta”) approved their Statement on Freedom of Expression on December 13, 2019.
It reads, in part:
Learning requires exposure to a variety of views, including those with which one disagrees, and the ability to participate in intellectual debate – including having one’s own views challenged. Research and discovery require the ability to challenge the conventional, to communicate findings and their implications, and to provide informed commentary in the public sphere. Across all areas of its mandate, the university is committed to intellectual integrity, rigorous inquiry, and the robust expression and discussion of ideas. Fostering the ability of members of the university community to engage in debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the university’s educational mission. Recognizing that free expression can thrive only where all members of the university community have the ability to participate fully, we strive to foster an inclusive and respectful institutional culture that is free of discrimination and harassment.
The University of Alberta remains committed to free expression in all forms of communication, including non-violent protest and dissent. The university is a place of free and open inquiry in all matters, and all members of the university community have the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, view, challenge, profess, and learn. Members of the university community have the right to criticize and question other views expressed on our campuses, but may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with others’ freedom of expression. Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or misguided. It is for individuals, not the institution, to make those judgments for themselves and to act not by seeking to suppress expression, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose. The university does not attempt to shield members of the university community from ideas or opinions they disagree with or find offensive. Mutual respect and civility are valued, but their absence does not constitute sufficient justification to limit free expression.
Freedom of expression at the university does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. Free expression is subject to the limitations imposed by Canadian or Alberta law. The university has the authority to restrict expression that violates law, causes the university to violate law, violates applicable university policies, procedures or collective agreements, falsely defames, constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, or unjustifiably violates privacy or confidentiality interests. The university may also regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the university. However, this administrative discretion should not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with the University of Alberta’s overarching commitment to free expression. Ideas and opinions presented on our campuses are neither a reflection of, nor an endorsement from, the university, unless otherwise stated.
In a diverse and inclusive university environment characterized by lively debate, people can expect, from time to time, to be confronted by concepts or images that they find offensive or disturbing, and to have their ideas questioned or challenged. The university remains committed to providing support services to those who need them.
The right to academic freedom is addressed separately in the context of the collective agreement with the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta.
Complaint processes are available through existing policies, procedures, and collective agreements.
The University of Alberta’s Discrimination, Harassment and Duty to Accommodate Policy lists academic freedom as a guiding principle of the policy:
The University of Alberta’s motto, Quaecumque Vera (whatsoever things are true) declares the University’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech. As an institution of higher learning and research, the University is devoted to discovery, debate, difference of opinion, and the careful and public weighing of ideas and actions. Members of the University have the right to pursue the truth in their research and U of A Policies and Procedures On-Line (UAPPOL) publications, artistic creations, teaching, learning, service, and public debate. This includes the right to question and criticize the status quo. Academic freedom, however, is not without limits. It is not, for example, a justification or license for discrimination or harassment.
The Discrimination, Harassment and Duty to Accommodate Policy defines “harassment”, in part, as conduct or comment, either one-time or repeated, that “is demeaning” or “causes offence.” Racial harassment is defined as involving the “undermin[ing] of self-esteem.”
The University of Alberta Residence Community Standards Policy affirms the freedoms recognized in the Code of Student Behaviour (“the freedom to create, learn, study, associate, speak and write, and the associated obligations to respect these freedoms exercised by others”) and also states that, “Every individual is equal in worth and dignity and possesses the same rights and opportunities, free from discrimination and harassment.”
General Faculties Council Policy 91. Protocol for Urgent Cases of Disruptive, Threatening or Violent Conduct addresses threatening or violent conduct:
This protocol provides a guide for dealing with conduct which is, or has the potential to be, disruptive, threatening or violent, that is to say, conduct which goes beyond the discussion of controversial ideas. Unfortunately, as events at a number of universities have shown, staff, students and visitors are capable of inflicting great harm on others in their community.
Threatening or violent conduct is defined as:
iii. creating, perpetuating, or threatening to create, a condition which unnecessarily endangers or threatens the health, safety or well-being of another person or group of persons or causes or threatens to cause the damage or destruction of property.
The University of Alberta Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) supports ideological advocacy through their Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI) initiatives, such as giving out EDI awards and institutionally endorsing “reconciliation” and “intersectionality.”
In March 2020, professor of anthropology Kathleen Lowrey, who described herself as a gender-critical feminist, learned that an unspecified number of informal complaints had been made against her by students claiming she has made the learning environment “unsafe.”
Lowrey, who was serving as the anthropology department’s associate chair of undergraduate programs, was subsequently asked to resign from her role. Lowrey refused, and stated that if the University wanted to fire her from her position as chair, they could provide her with a letter laying out the reasons for her dismissal. She then received a letter from Dean of Arts Lesley Cormack, which informed her that “your appointment to the position of Associate Chair, Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Anthropology will conclude effective July 1, 2020. You are unfortunately not able to be as effective in this administrative role as the Department and Faculty require, and it is not in the best interests of the students or the University for you to carry on.”
Cormack offered no concrete reasons as to why Lowrey was being dismissed.
Although Lowrey was fired from a service role and not her academic position, her professorship is still affected: “being dismissed from a service position is bad, since one of the things I am evaluated on each year is my service performance. The evaluation is 40% about your teaching, 40% about your research, and 20% about your service,” says Lowrey.
Neither Dean of Students André Costopoulos nor the UAlberta department of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and Human Resources Services will speak to the question of how many individuals complained about Lowrey and what the complaints alleged.
In November 2019, UAlberta faculty of education lecturer Dougal MacDonald wrote in a Facebook post that the Holodomor famine of the 1930s is a hoax pushed by “former Nazi collaborators and their spawn.” MacDonald wrote: "Trudeau's support for the anti-communist, pro-Nazi Holodomor myth is no accident. The Trudeau government's promotion of the Holdomor myth is more of its self-serving agenda to attempt to rewrite history, while falsely claiming to support freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
UAlberta’s Deputy Provost Wendy Rodgers said in an email statement:
"As a private citizen, Mr. MacDonald has the right to express his opinion, and others have the right to critique or debate that opinion. It is our understanding that he has not expressed these views in the context of his employment relationship with the university.”
MacDonald was not formally investigated by the university, and over 40 UAlberta faculty members signed an open letter on December 2, 2019 in support of MacDonald’s right to freedom of expression.
On January 11, 2016, the student group UAlberta Pro-Life applied for University authorization to set up a stationary educational display on campus on February 23 and 24, 2016. On February 12, only eleven days prior to the scheduled event, the University of Alberta notified the students that they would need to pay $17,500 in “security fees” to proceed with their peaceful educational display. In its communication, the University demanded that pro-life students pay for the wages of security guards and police, and costs of barricading the venue, and pay for the potential misconduct of people who would violate the University’s Code of Student Behaviour by obstructing and disrupting the display. Unable to pay $17,500, UAlberta Pro-Life was forced to cancel its planned event in February 2016.
In March of 2015, UAlberta Pro-Life held a similar event, which (then) President Indira Samarasekera supported through a public statement that the University must facilitate and protect the peaceful expression of all views, regardless of popularity. In defiance of the President’s clear statement about free expression and the rule of law, a student-led mob blockaded and obstructed the club’s display, in violation of the Code of Student Behaviour. Although the University had advance notice that a mob was being organized to obstruct the display, and although Dr. Samarasekera had warned that any misbehaviour would be investigated and prosecuted, the University of Alberta Protective Services (UAPS) did nothing to stop the blockade of the club’s display. UAPS did not photograph or seek to identify any blockading student, even though the Code clearly prohibits students from disrupting or obstructing University-related functions.
On March 11, 2015, UAlberta Pro-Life filed a formal complaint with UAPS against the disruptive students pursuant to the Code of Student Behaviour. It took UAPS over eight months to release a decision in regard to the complaint. In its November 30, 2015 decision, UAPS confirmed that the University would neither charge nor prosecute the students who disrupted, blocked and obstructed the March 2015 display on campus.
On December 18, 2015, the Justice Centre wrote to the University of Alberta Office of Student Conduct and Accountability to appeal the UAPS Decision. On February 4, 2016, the Office of Student Conduct and Accountability dismissed the appeal.
In its court application, UAlberta Pro-Life seeks a declaration that the decision made by the University of Alberta to impose a $17,500 security fee on the club is illegal and unjustifiably infringes the fundamental Canadian value of freedom of expression, also protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court application further seeks to prohibit the University from imposing a financial burden on the students as a condition for the exercise of their freedom of speech.
This court application also seeks a declaration that the decision made by the University of Alberta to condone the conduct of students who disrupted and blockaded the University-authorized campus event of UAlberta Pro-Life in March of 2015, is unreasonable and therefore illegal.
This case was heard June 8 and 9, 2017. The appeal court rejected the University of Alberta’s imposition of a $17,500 security fee on UAlberta Pro-Life.
In July of 2013, posters were placed around the University of Alberta campus by "Men’s Rights Edmonton” and were later removed by the University’s campus security. The posters were not approved previous to being posted, and Men’s Rights Edmonton was not a registered student group. The “Don’t Be That Girl” poster reads: “Just because you regret a one night stand, doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual. Lying about sexual assault = a crime.” The poster was designed to raise awareness about allegedly unfounded accusations of sexual assaults. The poster’s graphic and design mimicked a similar campaign launched several years earlier in Vancouver, “Don’t Be That Guy”.
Complaints about the posters were received by the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, which in turn informed campus security and requested the posters be removed.
In a post to the University of Alberta’s official blog on July 10, 2013, the University’s Provost, Martin Ferguson-Pell, issued the following statement:
I was sorry to learn that posters have been put up by an anonymous person or persons on campus which have angered many in our community.
The content of these posters is offensive to some of our faculty, students, and staff, and the university does not condone the message. We also recognize people have a right to freedom of expression. However, these posters violate our posting policies and procedures and have been removed.
The University of Alberta chose to intervene in the Alberta Court of Appeal against free expression in the case Pridgen v. University of Calgary, supporting the University of Calgary’s unsuccessful attempt to censor criticism of a professor on a Facebook page. The U of A believed, like the University of Calgary, that “institutional autonomy” and “academic freedom” should serve as a license for universities to repudiate their own mission statement (and the condition on which they receive government funding) by censoring the peaceful expression of students on campus. The Alberta Court of Appeal affirmed the Court of Queen’s Bench decisions in Pridgen v. University of Calgary that “the university is not a Charter-free zone.”
Section 2.7 of the University of Alberta Students’ Union Operating Policies requires that posters from students or student groups cannot be approved if they contain material that is “sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise defamatory,” as well as “any poster that contains offensive or insensitive pictures or content.”
Section 2.9 of the Operating Policies states that “[a]ll publications must be in good taste, and relevant to the needs of the student population. Publications that are sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise defamatory shall not be permitted.”
The terms “otherwise defamatory,” “in good taste”, and “relevant to the needs of the student population” are very subjective. Such vague terms give discretion to the Executive Committee to determine which messages may be distributed through publications and which may not.
The Students’ Union Political Policies defines a “political policy” as a “directive from Students’ Council to the Executive Committee that sets the direction of the Student’s Union’s advocacy efforts.” It states:
Members of the Executive Committee are responsible for creating and following implementation plans for political policies and must report their progress to the Policy Committee.
The UASU’s “Nonpartisan” policy states:
Bylaw 2200, section 27, “Campaign Material”, states:
The cost of all campaign materials shall be approved by the elections staff before being used in campaign activities. Candidates shall provide the elections staff with:
Section 3 (“Student Group Code”) of Bylaw 5100, “Student Group Conduct”, lists the following activities as prohibited:
Section 4 (“Student Group Recognition”) of Bylaw 5100 says:
The UASU does not take official stances outside of its mandate.
On November 28, 2019, in response to UAlberta lecturer Dougal MacDonald’s comments about the Holodomor, University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) President Akanksha Bhatnagar released a “Statement on genocide denial by a University of Alberta lecturer” that said MacDonald must “take back his statements or resign”:
We condemn Dr. Dougal MacDonald's denial of the Holodomor, the Soviet genocide that killed millions in Ukraine. Dr. MacDonald persists in calling the Ukrainian genocide an “anti-communist, pro-Nazi myth” that was created by “Hitlerite Nazis to discredit the Soviet Union.” We call for Dr. MacDonald to take back his statements or resign. In solidarity with the Ukrainian Students’ Society (USS), we also call upon the University of Alberta to condemn Dr. MacDonald’s remarks.
The University administration has stated that it is not aware of Dr. MacDonald sharing these opinions in his professional interactions with students. The University of Alberta Students’ Union is committed to protecting the right of every student to have a safe learning environment. The University's policies and principles on free expression protect this right.
The Students’ Union has furthermore stayed silent when a pro-life club had its event disrupted by protesters, and when the same club was subjected to a $17,500 security fee as a condition for holding an event on campus.