Some university students think the lecturer whose class they are taking is doing a lousy job. Someone creates a hyperbolically-named Facebook group to rant; others join; a few post derogatory messages on the group’s wall. So far, so normal. But, after the semester ends and the lecturer, for reasons unknown, is no longer employed by the university, she somehow learns of the Facebook group, and complains to the university’s authorities. A kangaroo court is held, and finds the members of the group ― including those who posted no messages at all, and those whose messages were quite innocuous ― guilty of “non-academic misconduct.” Some of the students are required to write an apology letter to the former lecturer and put on probation. An appeal to a higher university instance is fruitless, and the university’s Board of Governors refuses to hear a further appeal. Judicial review and an appeal ensue.
That’s the scary story of Keith and Steven Pridgen, (former) students at the University of Calgary, whose right to rant the Alberta Court of Appeal vindicated in a recent decision. One has to hope that it will serve as a lesson for professors and university administrators (as well as teachers and school principals) in the future. Students, in case such people forget, have always ranted about their professors, and always will. It’s not always nice, and it’s not always fair; get over it. (This is, as much as anything else, a note to self as an aspiring academic.) The fact that rants now leave a digital record does not change anything, it seems to me: just because they used to circulate (and of course still circulate) by word of mouth, rants were no less pervasive and durable in the past. Stories about professors are handed over from one cohort of students to the next; they are an ineradicable part of university’s environment.
Legally, the Alberta Court of Appeal is interesting in a number of ways. Each of the three judges wrote a separate opinion. They all agree in finding the university’s decision unreasonable and hence invalid on administrative law grounds, because the university’s decision bore little, if any, relationship with the evidence it ought to have been based on ― evidence of harm to the lecturer, or of the specific actions of each accused student. Justice O’Ferrall also finds that the utter failure to consider the students’ free speech rights contributes to making the decision unreasonable. The judges disagree, however, on whether to address the other issue debated by the parties (and several interveners) – the applicability of the Charter, and its guarantee of freedom of expression.
Justice Paperny thinks the question deserves to be addressed, since it was debated at length by the parties and is important; her colleagues disagree, because it is not necessary to the resolution of the case (since it can be resolved on administrative law grounds) and important constitutional questions should not be addressed unless it is necessary to do so. Both arguments have merit; I’m not sure on whose side I would have come out if I had to vote. Justice Paperny devotes much of her opinion to arguing that the Charter does indeed apply to universities, at least in their disciplinary dealings with their students. Her review of the case law is comprehensive, her argument about the universities’ and the government’s roles in contemporary society sometimes sweeping. And it is persuasive (and Justice Paperny’s colleagues, one senses, do not actually disagree with its substance).
One final thought. The court did not pause to consider whether the university even had the power to punish students for something they wrote on Facebook. Yet it seems to me that it’s a crucial jurisdictional question. (Needless to say, the university did not consider it either.) I can see why a university might be interested in what is being said in its lecture halls, or online on forums it maintains (in connection with courses for example). It does have an interest in maintaining a welcoming, respectful learning environment, although arguably this interest does not play out in the same way as a school’s, since everyone at a university is an adult and is there by choice. But does this interest give a university the right to police the conduct of its students off-campus or online? I think not; but in any case, it’s too bad the court did not ask itself the question.