Court hears challenge to censorship of school board trustee

Mike Ramsay, an elected trustee of the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) and officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was censored by his school board colleagues after advocating for freedom of expression, transparency, democratic rights, and a renewed focus on academic excellence in the Waterloo public education system. 

During a January 2022 WRDSB meeting in which teacher Carolyn Burjoski expressed concerns about age-inappropriate books in school libraries, her microphone was cut off and she was expelled from the meeting (watch here). In support of Ms. Burjoski, Trustee Ramsay retweeted an article by journalist Jonathan Kay, who criticized the Board’s decision to terminate Ms. Burjoski’s presentation.  

In February 2022, the Board launched a formal inquiry into the conduct of Trustee Ramsay, in response to the submission of a formal complaint. According to the complaint, Trustee Ramsay had failed to uphold the dignity and integrity of his office by engaging in uncivil behaviour. 

On June 6, 2022, the WRDSB determined, in a six-to-three vote, that Trustee Ramsay had violated the Code of Ethics of the Waterloo School Board. After Trustee Ramsay had submitted a request for reconsideration, arguing that the Board’s decision was unfair, unreasonable, and unconstitutional, the Board responded by voting to ban him from attending school board meetings entirely until September 30, 2022, and by further prohibiting him from accessing the in camera materials that were available to other trustees. As a result, Trustee Ramsay was prevented from performing his democratic duties to the more than 10,000 voters who had elected him to be their trustee. 

In his October 2022 “Re-elect Mike Ramsay” campaign, Mr. Ramsay proclaimed that it was time to “redirect the school board’s focus on student learning and achievement and not political indoctrination. Political indoctrination has no place in our classrooms.”  In his election material, Mr. Ramsay publicly described Critical Race Theory–a component of many curriculums in Ontario–as a “divisive concept that presumes that some students are racist and oppressive, while others are victims.” Further, Mr. Ramsay expressed criticism of the secrecy he had encountered throughout the school board complaint process that had banned him from serving the public. He argued that the Board had often breached its duty to be fair by deliberating in private. Mr. Ramsay advocated for an open and transparent process that would enable the public to access the information necessary to hold trustees accountable for their decisions. Mr. Ramsay was [overwhelmingly??] re-elected by his constituents. 

Trustee Ramsay launched a legal challenge against the WRSBD, arguing that his freedom of expression–guaranteed by Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms–had been violated by the Board in its ruling that he had breached the Code of Conduct simply by disagreeing with the decision to silence Carolyn Burjoski. He has also challenged the Board’s decision to censure him, to bar him from attending Board meetings for three months, and to prohibit him from receiving in camera Board materials.

On June 6, 2023, the Ontario Divisional Court heard Trustee Ramsay’s legal challenge.  The Courts’ decision is pending.

Lawyer Hatim Kheir stated, “Trustee Ramsay’s case is important because it engages not only his own personal right to free expression but also the values of democracy embodied in his role as an elected representative. When Trustee Ramsay was silenced, his constituents were also silenced. We are hopeful that this case will provide guidance to school boards going forward, that trustees should not be unreasonably from exercising their duties.”

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