09/26/2013 06:00 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

Shortcomings in the Campus Freedom Index

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has just released its annual Campus Freedom Index, which adjudicates universities and student unions vis-à-vis freedom of expression on campus. Though an important topic, there are some problems with this study.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has just released its annual Campus Freedom Index, which adjudicates universities and student unions vis-à-vis freedom of expression on campus. The full text of the report is available here.

As I argued in my Prince Arthur Herald column on Monday, with support from a handful of anecdotes about the universities that I have attended, there is a significant culture of censorship on campus which ultimately results in and aims to engender self-censorship -- the most important manner of capitulation from those who hold unpopular political of philosophical opinions.

When someone genuinely fears that his or her standing as a dignified member of a student body is in jeopardy, full participation in college life is undermined, as is the spirit of the university as a place of refuge for thoughts and ideas which, for various reasons, might be unthinkable or unspeakable elsewhere in society. There is an urgent need for a push back against this, especially given the disturbing qualities of character among those who shamefully advance censorship under various guises.

The chief virtue of the report is its confirmation that tangible cases of censorship are indeed ubiquitous in Canadian universities, and that such cases are invariably ideological in motivation. Another is that the authors do give detail for their judgments, citing actual incidences and the texts of policy statements to support the grading. Third, they include information about the misuse of "security concerns" as an excuse to censor groups -- a trick that campus ideologues have employed as an underhanded way to censor their opponents while maintaining the appearance of openness and objectivity. And the usual business about circumscribing speech for the purpose of observing "human rights" legislation is also covered.

There are, however, some methodological problems with the study which, if addressed, would improve the report. The most significant is the time period under examination. This is the 2013 annual report, but events from as far back as 1992 are listed. (This is not only for the citation of policies, some of which understandably go back a long way. I'm talking about evidence of practices, which are under examination in addition to the mission statements and mandates.) If the purpose of the document is to simply show that there is (and has historically been) a problem with free speech on campus -- certainly a necessary and noble ambition -- I'm not sure than an annual report is the best kind of document for the job, at least without some change in format. Otherwise, the piece ends up being unfair to colleges that may well have improved in the intervening time. It also creates the impression that the proverbial books are cooked in favour of the authors' own point of view.

This is not to say that an annual report might not include details from the past, but if if such details are included, they should be separated from the evidence of the past year and presented using a statistical representation such as a graph or diagram, so that the progress toward a more free environment for campus speech, or a regress away therefrom, could be observed.

The grading system might also be criticized. Grades of 'B' and 'C' for practice are given when there is no evidence to support a judgment, but are distinguished by the grade of the policies from the same study. This undermines the distinction that the authors draw in the introduction between policies and practices, where it is explained that many university administrations and student unions are conscious to include the language of free thought and expression in their written policies despite not valuing these ideals in practice. But if the distinction between a 'B' and 'C' grade in practice is only determined by the grade under policies, it makes the separation of the two categories seem less important than the authors want it to be.

The above two criticisms speak to a general problem of an insufficient body of material. This is not an attack on the authors -- in many cases there may not have been incidents to report on, so the reporters are left with a need to "fill in the gaps" (as in the aforementioned practices category), use information that can no longer be considered current, or simply acknowledge that there is none available.

But perhaps this speaks to the level of ambition taken on by the authors, whereby a lack of data in concert with a promise to grade Canadian schools across the board leaves the reader wanting much more. An alternative might be to publish the report less frequently, allowing for more data to come through, or to streamline the grading system. Instead of A's to F's, the report could just designate incidences constituting censorship and allow those results to speak for themselves.

I'm also not sure that setting up the study as being one university against others is very useful for what we're really dealing with here. Censorship is a cultural problem at all present-day universities, mostly thanks to the belief among people who could actually affect a change -- the faculty -- that universities remain a front line in the so-called culture wars. Almost all of the incidences of censorship dealt with in the report involve culture-war questions like abortion, homosexuality, or support for Israel by America and its allies. It is no coincidence that these issues are the ones that radical professors care about. And in their own way, the same professors encourage the shmendriks who run the student unions to censor "the enemy."

So what does it matter if Acadia University and Simon Fraser are slightly better than Carleton and Ottawa? Yes, Absurdistan cases like Lakehead need to be pointed out, but the premise of the report -- that through vigilant study we can identify the schools and provinces where censorship reigns -- is peripheral to real point that needs to be made: Universities are not "islands" anymore. They are big, corporatized, materialistic machines which are used as megaphones by culture warriors, who use their privilege to drown out any voices that give a different message. And there is no response or effort of resistance because the idea of the university as an institution of free thought and expression has evaporated, both from within the walls and campus and without.

I don't know how you could put that into a report, but the problem of chronicling the sorry state of campus freedom remains. Despite some of the issues I've mentioned here, the Campus Freedom Index is nevertheless a good place to start.


This article also appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald.