Do Canadian Students Have Any Right to Free Expression?

Jul 13, 2011 01:43 PM EDT

Author: ADF Senior Legal Counsel Casey Mattox

What would American college universities be like without a First Amendment to protect disfavored (i.e. Christian, pro-life) speech? If Carleton University in Ottawa prevails in its legal argument before a Queen’s Justice in Ottawa today, Canadian students may soon find themselves a case study in a university education where there is not even a pretense of a marketplace of ideas.

Earlier this year, 2010 Pro-life activist of the year Ruth Lobo and a fellow pro-life student sued Carleton University officials after they were arrested (click for video) for holding a peaceful Genocide Awareness Project event on their campus. Carleton University is by any objective measure the equivalent of a “public” university in the United States. Yet, Carleton argues in Court pleadings that the school is not subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ protection of freedom of expression because it is not a “government” entity that must honor these student rights. Under Carleton’s reading of the Charter, the protections for freedoms of expression, association, etc. are inapplicable to universities and students have no constitutional protection for their expression on campus at Carleton and other similarly “public” universities. Today in Ottawa, ADF Allied Attorney Albertos Polizogopoulos will defend against Carleton’s motion to dismiss the case. Prayers are solicited. A decision will likely come in several weeks.

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While the complaint also raises several other ways in which Carleton’s actions violated the students’ rights, if accepted, Carleton’s assertion that it is unconstrained by any constitutional protections for its students’ expression makes this a critical case to watch. Not only will the case determine the free speech rights of millions of Canadian students, but if Canada abandons altogether the notion of free speech on its university campuses, such a precedent might also be used to diminish First Amendment protections on U.S. campuses.

With the rise in appeals to international law in interpreting the U.S. Constitution, it is worth remembering that one of the grievances listed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence was that King George had “abolish[ed] the free system of English laws in a neighboring province [Canada] … so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies.” Unfortunately, some in the U.S. would have the motive to take advantage of bad decision by Canadian courts.

Certain groups find the First Amendment a pesky obstacle to creation of a more “progressive” university and society and seek to effectively repeal its protections for dissenting voices on campus. If Carleton prevails in claiming that students lack any constitutional speech protections, we can expect not only dire consequences for Canadian students but also efforts to import that decision into U.S. courts.

This post originally appeared here.