University of Alberta president supports free speech for Suzuki, not his own students

The Post Millenial, May 4, 2018

University of Alberta president Dr. David Turpin has been nothing less than courageous in defending the awarding of an honorary degree to anti-oil activist David Suzuki. What a shame that this courage is applied only selectively, and not consistently. Under attack from donors and the oil-and-gas industry, Dr. Turpin issued a public statement declaring that the university’s special role is to “tolerate the discord that comes along with freedom of inquiry.” We should allow debate about “ideas that sometimes trouble us, shock our sense of the true and right, and even provoke our anger.”

Interestingly, The U of A honours this role when it comes to aggressive anti-oil advocacy, but not for prolife advocacy on campus. In 2015, the University condoned the obstruction and physical blockading of a stationary pro-life display, set up by a registered campus club with the full approval of the University. In response to a Facebook campaign to disrupt the pro-life event and silence its message, then-president Indira Samarasekera stated that this violation of the Code of Student Behaviour would not be tolerated. The University’s talk was good, but proved meaningless when a loud mob surrounded the pro-life display, shutting down civil conversation about troubling ideas that “shock our sense of the true and right”. University of Alberta president supports free speech for Suzuki, not his own students.

Aside from repeatedly telling the obstructionists to stop violating the Code of Student Behaviour, campus security took no action to stop the physical obstruction of free speech on campus. While in possession of numerous photos and much video evidence, which made it abundantly clear which students were responsible for obstructing a university-approved campus event, campus security refused to discipline any of the students who had flagrantly violated the Code of Student Behaviour. The University then demanded that the campus pro-life group pay $17,500 in security fees, if they wished to set up a pro-life display in future. Yet Dr. Turpin declares boldly that his university is “an institution founded on the principles of freedom of inquiry, academic integrity, and independence.” Yes, for David Suzuki. But not for his own students. Dr. Turpin declares that “Universities must not be afraid of controversy. Instead, we must be its champion.”

But in a court action that is now before the Alberta Court of Appeal, the University vigorously defends its decisions not to discipline students who violated the Code of Student Behaviour by trampling on the free expression rights of their fellow students. The University also defends its decision to impose the $17,500 security fee on students who did nothing other than express their opinions on campus in a peaceful manner. When Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel, she was asked to place a curfew on women, to help end a series of rapes. Meir replied by stating, “But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.” Golda Meir’s logic is lost on Dr. Turpin, who insists on blaming the victims for the illegal behaviour of those who silence unpopular speech on campus.

The people who should pay the $17,500 security fee are those students who boasted publicly on Facebook about their success in shutting down an event simply because they disagreed with the opinion being expressed. If Dr. Turpin is not able to see the glaring hypocrisy of his stance, perhaps he would change his mind if the ceremony at which David Suzuki receives his degree was disrupted by a loud mob. I bet he would instruct campus security to take immediate and decisive action against those who blockaded and obstructed this university event. And I’m sure that Dr. Turpin will not be asking David Suzuki to pay for security. Rather, the university will cheerfully make use of its generous government funding to cover such costs.

Calgary lawyer John Carpay is President of the Justice Centre, which acts for University of Alberta students in defence of their free expression rights.