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Catholic Vancouver Sept. 18, 2018

Ontario campus free speech policy a ‘small Band-Aid’

By Agnieszka Ruck

Maggie McAuley describes discrimination she faced as a pro-life university student in Ontario in a video released by National Campus Life Network. The series, aimed at “putting a face” on the issue, is coming out after the Ontario government mandated publicly-funded campuses write free speech policies.

Dehumanized. Spat on by a professor. Attacked. Assaulted.

These are the words Maggie McAuley uses to describe the discrimination she felt as a pro-life student on campus at the University of Windsor, Ont.

“A man asked me if I would have an abortion if he raped me. Afterwards, he put a photo of an aborted baby in my mailbox with a single line: ‘your baby after I rape you,’” she said on a video released by National Campus Life Network Sept. 10.

“I was terrified to even leave my house. I have failed classes, lost friends, and spent hours in therapy. Barely a day went by in my second year that I wasn’t repeatedly dehumanized and lied about on campus. Instead of helping me, my women’s centre denied me. They told me they wouldn’t help me because it was a pro-choice space.”

McAuley shared her story on a video released 11 days after the Ontario government announced all publicly-funded universities and colleges must have a free speech policy in place by Jan. 1, 2019.

The announcement from the Premier's office said free speech policies would apply to faculty, students, staff, management, and guests.

“Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry. The university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions they disagree with or find offensive,” says the document.

“While members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views.”

According to McAuley, the policy is a nice idea, but does not go nearly far enough.

“The problem is a lot of universities already have policies of freedom of speech. Windsor does,” she told The B.C. Catholic Sept. 11.

“It’s like putting a small Band-Aid on a split-open head. It’s a gesture. It acknowledges the problem, which is good, but it’s not going to fix it.”

In her mind, the only way to truly protect the free speech rights of university students would be a winning court case in favour of those who feel discriminated.

“I don’t claim to know every pro-life student, but every pro-life student I do know has faced discrimination,” she said.

According to the National Campus Life Network, it's a much larger issue than many people realize.

Executive director Ruth Shaw said while McAuley's story is the “most extreme” she’s heard in the last 10 years, the various components of her story – facing threats of arrest, being spat upon, and watching pro-life displays trashed – happen often and across the country.

“Every one of those individual things has happened repeatedly on Canadian campuses” and has “ramped up significantly” in recent years, she said.

In the last decade, her organization has worked on 20-40 post-secondary campuses a year and she estimates discrimination complaints were made from at least half of them. The B.C. Catholic told some of these stories in 2016.

“Overall, I’m pleased to have a Premier who seems to recognize that it’s an issue,” but while the policy is a good first step, it doesn’t do enough to protect students. For example, it stays silent about student unions, which are often the biggest perpetrators, said Shaw.

“Student unions are bastions of discrimination in Canada. They are not bound by their own administration, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or Canadian law,” said Shaw. “Who are they accountable to? Seemingly nobody.”

The Alberta-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has represented various pro-lifers in legal proceedings and publishes findings about free speech issues at post-secondary schools in its Campus Freedom Index. It has also weighed in on the Ontario announcement.

“While imperfect, the plan is a welcome response to the deafening silence of all provincial governments, of all stripes, about the censorship crisis on campus,” JCCF said the day after the statement came out.

“The Ontario government still needs to address the problem of security fees being used as a tool to censor controversial speech on campus, at Wilfrid Laurier University and elsewhere. Such incidents are becoming more commonplace.”

The centre praised the government’s stance that failure to comply with free speech policies is so serious it could result in funding cuts. 

But, the group noted the policy still lacks a clear definition of discrimination and “stays silent on whether student unions should be covered by universities’ free speech policies.”