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Waterloo Should Not Stifle Free Speech

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At the University of Waterloo last week, Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth was scheduled to speak to a group of students at an event organized by the Students for Life campus club. Stephen Woodworth, a staunchly pro-life MP, had previously brought forth a motion in Parliament to strike a committee to review the Criminal Code definition of when a child becomes a human being. The motion was voted down, with the Prime Minister and most of his Cabinet voting in opposition.

While many of us may not share Mr. Woodworth's sentiments regarding abortion, no one has the right to impose a viewpoint on another. We may challenge views we find unattractive, but we do not have the right to silence or suppress unpopular ideas.

Unfortunately, a group of students shut down Mr. Woodworth's speech by shouting him down, until he was left with no choice but to cancel the event. In what can only be described as an act of idiocy, a Mr. Ethan Jackson, dressed as a giant vagina, shouted, "Who do you think you are trying to impose your bigotry, your views on society through your Christian monotheism?"

The President of the University of Waterloo issued a press release that supported the values of free speech and condemned the actions of the protesters as "an attack on our presence as s a place where issues are explored, discussed and debated." A review of the incident is currently underway.

The University of Waterloo, similarly to other universities, has policies in place governing how academic and non-academic student misconduct is handled. "Disruptive, dangerous, aggressive or threatening behaviour" is an offence under this policy. Further, the University recognizes that "communication, inquiry and the free exchange of ideas are fundamental to a university education, and require an environment of tolerance and respect [...] A student's academic freedom does not extend to disruption of other students, faculty or staff members, or their work/study/residence environments."

This same policy also states that: "In cases involving disruptive or threatening behaviour on the part of students (including assault, vandalism, theft and similar behaviour), UW Police shall be contacted to establish order. Individuals should not attempt to resolve a dangerous situation."

The video of the incident shows the police in the room standing by while the protesters shouted viciously and angrily at Mr. Woodworth. While the police may have been unsure of how to deal with such a strange situation, there should be clear guidelines as to how future incidents are dealt with. The police must enforce order, as the Student Discipline policy requires, and should charge and remove those students who are shutting down academic discussion.

Regarding the punishment taken against the protesters who are registered Waterloo students, the press release identifies that there were nearly two-dozen students from UW.

It appears that these students have violated the Student Discipline policy, through (1) disruptive, dangerous, aggressive, or threatening behaviour; and (2) infringing unreasonably on the work of others. There are a number of penalties that can be imposed for non-academic offences. One which would be appropriate under the circumstances is a ban from certain University facilities or sponsored events. If these students feel comfortable with shutting down an event that they don't agree with, they should be prohibited from participating in campus events. For subsequent, or more serious offences, the students should receive a suspension; when the offence is committed a third time, the student should face expulsion.

For non-student protesters, the University should seek formal criminal charges.

These penalties may seem severe, but the protesters did not merely disrupt an event. Their offence harmed all students on campus by attacking the environment of tolerance, respect, and academic freedom, values which are crucial to the functioning of a university. Students holding controversial events, which have the potential to provoke genuine and meaningful discussions, should not have to cancel in fear of an angry mob disruption.

This is not the first time this has occurred at the University of Waterloo. In 2010, a group of protesters shut down an event by Christie Blatchford by shouting her down. The University of Waterloo issued an apology to Blatchford, a columnist at the National Post, and rescheduled her event, but the problem clearly persists.

If the University of Waterloo is truly an institution "that treasures the principles of free speech," as its President states, it must treat the suppression of free speech as an egregious aggravating factor when disciplining the offenders. It should also outline steps it is taking to ensure that such an incident will not occur in the future.

Originally published in The Prince Arthur Herald.