If a student were to criticize their professor for his or her ineptitude, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom will protect the student's right to do so. The case Pridgen v. University of Calgary1 was released recently by the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta, which primarily addressed as to whether the Charter applies to universities. The applicants of this case were two undergraduate students from the University of Calgary who had "committed non-academic misconduct"1 and were placed on probation for 24 months, for having a single comment each about their professor on a Facebook group.
In the fall of 2007, the two brothers who were the students in question, were enrolled in Professor Aruna Mitra's course---Law and Society 201. It was her first time teaching the legal survey course, and eight months after the course was concluded, the Pridgen brothers had posted comments on a Facebook page by the name "I NO Longer Fear Hell, I Took a Course with Aruna Mitra." Steven Pridgen mentioned on the wall that the professor was lazy and Keith Pridgen's message stated:1
Hey fellow LWSO. homees .. So I am quite sure Mitra is NO LONGER TEACHING ANY COURSES WITH THE U OF C !!!!! Remember when she told us she was a long- term professor? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn't able to do it... lucky us. Well anyways I think we should all congratulate ourselves for leaving a Mitra-free legacy for future L.S.W.O. students!
As expected, this was not well received by the administration and the issue was taken seriously. The ten students who had posted on this wall were called in by the Interim Dean of the Faculty of Communication and Culture upon Mitra's complaint, and all ten students, including the applicants were sanctioned for non-academic misconduct. In November 2008, a letter from the Interim Dean placed Keith on probation for two years and required Steven to produce a letter of apology to Professor Mitra. Both applicants unsuccessfully appealed the decision made by the Interim Dean to an ad hoc Review Committee, and had taken the appeal further by going to the Board of Governors, at which the university said in March 2009, that their "decision was unchanged"1. This prompted the students to sue, charging that the applicants' rights under the Charter to express themselves freely were breached, and this was the first issue that the court considered.
Section 32.1.b of the Charter of Rights and Freedom states that it applies "to the legislature and government of each province in respect of all matters within the authority of the legislature of each province".2 However, based on previous decisions made by the Canadian Courts, the university poorly argued that the Charter was only applicable to government institutions, and the University of Calgary did not fall under this category.3 In the precedent-setting ruling released earlier this month, Honourable Madame Justice Strekaf invoked the Charter, stating that it is applicable when academic discipline is in question, "I am satisfied that the University is not a Charter free zone. The Charter does apply in respect of the disciplinary proceedings taken by the University against the Applicants pursuant to the Post- Secondary Learning Act" Alberta's primary higher education law.1 She further stated that "(w)hile the University is free to construct policies dealing with student behavior which may ultimately impact access to the post-secondary system, the manner in which those policies are interpreted and applied must not offend the rights provided under the Charter. In this case, neither the PSL Act itself or the University's Policy on its own offend the Charter. The issue to be determined is whether the manner in which the Policy was applied infringed the Applicants’ Charter protected rights".1 She concluded the case by finding that the Applicants’ Charter rights were infringed, and ordered that the Reviewed Committee's decision be quashed.1
As it stands, the University of Calgary officials have not yet declared as to whether they will be filing an appeal. Nonetheless, this court ruling makes it evident that when universities try to implement censorship within their legitimate disciplinary proceedings, the Charter may be invoked to protect the students. The implications of the Pridgen v. University of Calgary case---while not be binding inn other Provinces---are that we can anticipate a future where the Charter protects the students' right to express themselves however they please.3 The University of Waterloo Act contains similar language to Alberta's PSL Act, enshrining "a spirit of free enquiry and expression" as an object of the University.4
by Pierre Trudeau
1Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta
2Department of Justice
3More Legal Risk for Canada's Universities
4University of Waterloo Act 1972