2020 Campus Freedom Index – Universities choose ideological advocacy over free expression


CALGARY:  The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms today released the 2020 Campus Freedom Index, an annual report providing students, parents and the public with information about the state of free speech at Canada’s 61 public universities.

In addition to assigning ‘A’ to ‘F’ letter grades to universities and student unions, this year’s report also analyzes the mission, vision, and values statements of 61 public postsecondary institutions. While 69% of Canadian universities include a commitment to “diversity” and “inclusion” in their mission, vision, or values statementsonly 21% express a willingness to implement policies upholding free expression and open inquiry.

“Free expression and open inquiry are supposed to be the founding principles of higher education,” states Lindsay Shepherd, Campus Free Speech Fellow at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

“Yet most universities prefer to deploy buzzword terms like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ abandoning the very values they were created to uphold. It seems that free speech is not even worth paying lip service to,” continues Shepherd.

“Diversity and inclusion are vague and ambiguous terms that often reveal a commitment to ideological advocacy rather than truth-seeking,” adds Shepherd.

Published annually since 2011, this year’s report resulted in 242 grades awarded to 61 campuses. Separate grades are given to universities and to student unions, with distinct grades given for policies and for practices. Only six universities earned an ‘A’ grade in 2020, but this was a slight improvement from 2019, when only four universities received an ‘A’ grade.  Only one student union, the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association, earned an ‘A’ grade in 2020, a figure unchanged from 2019.

On the other hand, 13 universities earned at least one ‘F’ grade in the 2020 Campus Freedom Index, up from eight in 2019. A whopping 23 student unions earned at least one ‘F’ grade, up almost double, from 13 student unions in 2019.

Overall there was a small increase in the number of ‘A’ grades, but a much larger increase in ‘F’ grades. While more universities publicly defended freedom of expression this year when faced with calls to cancel events or engage in censorship, more universities also engaged in censorship.

The Campus Freedom Index includes a review of the audited financial statements of 61 public postsecondary institutions. Canadian universities received approximately $15.7 billion taxpayer dollars in the 2019-20 academic year. (When 2019-20 audited financial statements were not available, 2018-19 data was used.) On average, 43 percent of a university’s revenue comes in the form of government grants. This means that all Canadians are stakeholders in the postsecondary education system, and have an investment in whether our universities uphold freedom of expression or engage in censorship.

The master chart of grades for each of the 61 universities and student unions surveyed can be found here.

“Results are sometimes very inconsistent,” states Shepherd.  “For example, UBC shut down an event featuring journalist Andy Ngo, but allowed an event with controversial professors Ricardo Duchesne and Mark Hecht to go forward. UBC shut down retired professor Janice Fiamengo, a critic of radical feminism, but then allowed her event to proceed. Ultimately, the COVID lockdown restrictions prevented the rescheduled event from going forward. At the University of Alberta, many faculty supported free speech for a professor who denied the Holodomor famine-genocide of the 1930s, but the same people remained silent when a gender-critical feminist professor was fired from a chair position.”

The 2020 Campus Freedom Index includes comprehensive reports on free speech at each of the 61 universities and student unions surveyed At CampusFreedomIndex.ca, users can quickly find and share information on the state of free speech at their campus. They can compare their rankings with other universities across the country and better understand why their school got the grades it did. CampusFreedomIndex.ca also enables students, professors and concerned citizens to take action and fight back against campus censorship.

An overview of Canada’s campus culture when it comes to free speech

What is the best university in Canada for free speech, and why?

The University of Lethbridge received an ‘A’ grade in both the Policies and Practices categories. In its Statement on Free of Expression, the university unequivocally sets out to provide an environment that promotes open inquiry, and disallows obstruction and the shutting down of others’ expression.

In March 2020, ULethbridge was faced with calls to cancel an on-campus lecture by former United Conservative Party of Alberta candidate Caylan Ford. Acting Provost Dr. Erasmus Okine released a statement affirming that the university would not cancel Ford’s presentation.

What is the worst university in Canada for free speech, and why?

Brock University received failing grades in both the “Policies” and “Practices” categories this year. Brock’s Free Expression Policy contains caveats about how expression must be respectful and inclusive, and their “Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy” includes a long list of prohibited forms of expression.

In June 2020, Brock University professor Tomáš Hudlický wrote an article in the German-based journal Angewandte Chemie that criticized diversity-based hiring practices, and spoke positively about “master-apprentice” working relationships between professors and graduate students. Responding to some public outrage from some quarters, Brock University Provost and Vice-President Academic Gregory Finn publicly excoriated Professor Hudlický: “The statements contained in the paper are not representative of the Brock community. They are utterly at odds with the values of Brock’s deeply committed research mentors, and all those working hard to build an inclusive and diverse community. They do not reflect the principles of inclusivity, diversity and equity included in the University’s mission, vision and values as approved by our Senate and Board of Trustees.”

What is one of the worst examples of free speech violations in the past year?

The University of British Columbia (UBC) Free Speech Club booked space to host journalist Andy Ngo on January 29, 2020. Ngo was to speak on the topic of Antifa violence. The club paid a room booking deposit in November, but in December UBC rescinded the event, with the vague mention of “safety” and “security.” The Justice Centre has now filed a court application on behalf of the Free Speech Club, against UBC.

What is the worst student union in Canada, and why?

Simon Fraser University’s student union, the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), received an ‘F’ grade in both the “Policies” and “Practices” categories of the 2020 Campus Freedom Index.

In the 2019–2020 academic year, the SFSS revoked club status and defunded the pro-life club SFU LifeLine after declaring that all clubs must take a pro-choice stance with a new “Reproductive Rights” policy.

Additionally, in response to an event on SFU’s campus titled “How Media Bias Shapes the Gender Identity Debate,” SFSS president Giovanni HoSang called for this panel discussion to be cancelled, stating “This event should not be given a platform to spread their message of hate and discrimination, making the LGBTQ2IA+ community and marginalized folks on our campus feel unsafe. SFU needs to do better and cancel the event.”

What is the best student union and why?

No student union received ‘A’ grades in both the “Policies” and “Practices” categories. The University of Waterloo student association, the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA, formerly “Feds”), received an ‘A’ grade in the “Policies” category, as they expressly say they will not censor clubs based on political or religious belief, and that they will not ban or disinvite guest speakers. They list “Freedom of Speech” as an advocacy priority. They are clear, transparent, and unequivocal in their commitment to free expression.

Highlights of the 2019-2020 academic year: 10 incidents that paint a picture of the campus climate

10. Mount Royal University cancels instructor’s field school after op-ed fiasco

Mark Hecht, an instructor at Mount Royal University (MRU), published an op-ed about social trust and ethnic diversity in the Vancouver Sun (http://archive.is/ulGJ4#selection-1653.116-1653.163) in September 2019. Capitulating to angry responses from some members of the public, the Vancouver Sun later removed the column from its website. MRU started out by defending Hecht’s academic freedom, but then cancelled the course that he was scheduled to teach in the Spring 2020 semester, with no legitimate reason provided.

9. The University of Ottawa Students’ Union declares they are a “pro-choice” organization, defunds pro-life club

In October 2019, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) declared they were a “pro-choice organization” by passing a motion that read, “…it is in violation of our constitution, and moral imperatives, to promote and allow speech with oppressive content that is negatively affecting the student community at large…We must work to create avenues through which womxn are no longer oppressed, where they no longer have to fight for their basic human rights.”

The student union revoked the club status from a University of Ottawa pro-life club, Students for Life, in December 2019. The group lost its funding, resources, and room booking access.

8. Simon Fraser University cowers to extremists

In November 2019, a panel discussion entitled “How Media Bias Shapes the Gender Identity Debate” with panelists Meghan Murphy, Jonathan Kay, Anna Slatz, and moderator Lindsay Shepherd was set to occur on the SFU campus, organized by an SFU professor and a local feminist group. Many SFU campus groups called for the cancellation of the event, such as the Graduate Student Society, Simon Fraser Student Society, and Teaching Support Staff Union.

After a group of trans activists threatened to physically disrupt the event by engaging in property destruction and false fire alarm activation, the SFU campus safety unit stated the risk of the event was extremely high, causing the sponsoring SFU professor to cancel the room booking.

SFU administration did not attempt to reach out to the organizers to re-book the event on campus with heightened security protocol.

7. Dalhousie University resists student union’s calls to cancel an on-campus event

At Dalhousie University, a “leadership development bootcamp” called Advanced Summit Halifax was scheduled to occur on the campus in November 2019. The event was not affiliated with the university itself. The Dalhousie LGBTQ2+ society and the Dalhousie Students’ Union (DSU) lobbied the university administration to cancel the event, as one of the speakers was former People’s Party of Canada candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Despite the student union’s efforts to get the event cancelled, Dalhousie proceeded with allowing the Advanced Summit to occur on campus.

6. University of Alberta defends free speech of lecturer who calls the Holodomor a hoax

In November 2019, University of Alberta faculty of education lecturer Dougal MacDonald wrote in a Facebook post that the Ukrainian Holodomor famine-genocide of the 1930s is a hoax pushed by “former Nazi collaborators and their spawn.”

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 in support of MacDonald’s right to freedom of expression.

5. University of British Columbia cancels speech by Andy Ngo

The University of British Columbia (UBC) Free Speech Club booked a space at UBC Robson Square to host journalist Andy Ngo on January 29, 2020, where Ngo was to speak on the topic of Antifa violence. The club paid a room booking deposit in November, but were informed in December their booking was rescinded – with no reason provided other than to protect “safety” and “security.” The Justice Centre has now filed a court application on behalf of the Free Speech Club, against UBC.

4. University of Lethbridge defends free expression and viewpoint diversity

Former United Conservative Party of Alberta candidate Caylan Ford was to deliver a presentation at the University of Lethbridge on March 13, 2020 titled “Free Inquiry in the Age of Outrage.” A handful of campus community members called for the cancellation of Ford’s presentation. In response, Acting Provost Dr. Erasmus Okine published a statement that read: “While the University does not endorse the opinions and views expressed by invited speakers, including Ford’s, by its very nature, a university permits free and open critical inquiry in all matters. The University’s Statement on Free Expression elaborates on this commitment.”

Ford’s presentation was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, not because of university censorship.

3. University of Alberta professor fired from chair position over gender-critical views

In March 2020, anthropology professor Kathleen Lowrey, who describes herself as a gender-critical feminist, learned that an unspecified number of informal complaints had been made against her by students claiming she made the learning environment “unsafe.”

Dean of Arts Lesley Cormack then asked Dr. Lowrey to resign from her role as the anthropology department’s associate chair of undergraduate programs. When Dr. Lowrey refused, she was fired from the chair position, with no concrete reasons provided.

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 Dr. Lowrey, and what the complaints alleged.

2. Conservative speaker cancelled at the University of Victoria

Conservative activist Aaron Gunn was set to give a speech titled “A Perspective on the Wet’suwet’en Protests” at the University of Victoria on March 12, 2020, an event planned by the University of Victoria Free Speech Club. Several days prior to March 12th, representatives of the Free Speech Club were informed by the University that their event was likely to attract protests, and the club would be required to pay for security for the event to proceed, which could potentially cost them several thousand dollars. The club ultimately cancelled their event in light of this information, and the University stated that if the club would like to re-book the event, they must first become a ratified student club, and second, attend a security meeting with university officials.

1. Laurentian University professor demoted after tweeting “All Lives Matter”

In June 2020, evolutionary ecologist and Dean of Graduate Studies at Laurentian University David Lesbarrères sent out a tweet that included a hashtag considered contentious among the activist class: “#AllLivesMatter.” Lesbarrères apologized, but was removed from the position of Dean of Graduate Studies. Laurentian University President and Vice-Chancellor Robert Haché released a statement saying that Lesbarrères’ tweet “hurt many people.”