How healthy is free speech on Canada’s university campuses?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Time for some more dispatches from the free-speech front lines at Canada's major universities.

You may recall a flap last year after a gay-rights activist tore down a so-called "free-speech wall" at Ottawa's Carleton University, which as it happens is my old school.

Arun Smith decided some rather bland scribblings of support for gays ("queers are awesome," and "gay is OK," for example) were actually homophobic and provocative, especially during Carleton's Pride Week.

Smith may also not have been keen about Students for Liberty, the U.S.-based libertarian organization responsible for free-speech walls at Carleton and other campuses that have been met with a similar response in some cases.

[ Related: Carleton activist tears down ‘free-speech wall,’ sparking campus flap ]

We take you now to Queen's University in Kingston., Ont., where the group's attempt to put up a free-speech wall Tuesday was stymied within hours, this time by campus security, according to the National Post.

“Queen’s Students for Liberty will invite students, faculty and community members to express their thoughts and opinions on the wall, as an exercise of their free expression rights,” a news release from the group said, according to the Post.

But by Tuesday evening it was gone, ostensibly because it contained "hate speech" and "racial slurs," provost Alan Harrison told the Post without saying exactly what the offending writings said.

“If you want to know what it said, you should ask somebody else,” he said.

The university cited its Code of Conduct and policy on harassment and discrimination for removing the wall, the Post said.

Students for Liberty, which posted a video of security guards removing the wall, condemned the move and promised its Queen's chapter would re-erect it.

“Ultimately this event shows that they [officials] would rather put feelings over freedom when it comes to free speech on campus," member Tyler Lively said on the group's web site.

The Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which co-sponsors the free-speech wall campaign, said the Students for Liberty chapter has complained to Kingston police because campus security won't return the paper roll containing the wall's postings.

The centre's president, lawyer John Carpay, called the university's actions "illegal."

“The contract between tuition-paying students and their university gives students the legal right to express their views on campus, whether individually or as a club," Carpay said in a statement. "As long as opinions are expressed in a peaceful manner, neither Queen’s university nor the student union has any right to censor speech based on its content, as has been done here."

Meanwhile there's another free-speech tussle happening at Toronto's York University over attempts to implement a boycott of all things Israeli, including academic exchanges.

An analysis piece in the National Post said the school's Federation of Students voted 18-2 last month to join a national movement to push universities to divest themselves of interests in companies connected with Israel and refuse exchanges with Israeli academics. The initiative has also been endorsed by student unions at Concordia in Montreal, the University of Regina and University of Toronto, the Post said.

Opponents of the boycott have criticized the way York's student federation approved the move by a vote at a poorly advertised meeting last month. The decision is not binding on the university or its faculty, the Post pointed out.

The federation used a similar tactic in 2008 to push through a ban on anti-abortion student clubs, the Post said. York's administration condemned that move and distanced itself from the latest action.

“As you may know, the York Federation of Students is an independent, autonomous student government and their leadership is duly elected through a democratic process," a university spokesperson told the Post.

[ Related: Anti-abortion MP blocked from speaking at University of Waterloo ]

Sam Eskenasi, communications officer for B’nai Brith, who attended the York debate as a former student, told the Post only one student representative asked substantive questions before the vote.

“I don’t think it’s reflective of the entire campus,” he said. “Whatever the minimum amount of notice is, these groups will try to do it as quickly as possible… It’s just that same group of people who have been there for years. This is their schtick.”

Federation executive director Hamid Osman wouldn't comment on the process, citing the federation's "media protocol," the Post said.