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Centre for Free Expression coming to Ryerson

April 20, 2015

By DASHA ZOLOTA

Special to the RJRC

A new Centre for Free Expression, the first of its kind at a Canadian university, is coming to Ryerson.

Currently in the planning stages, the centre will be housed in the Faculty of Communication and Design and led by Jim Turk, a distinguished visiting professor at the School of Journalism. It will focus on research, advocacy and event hosting and examine challenges in the creation, dissemination, access and representation of information.

“Democracy depends on an informed public,” says Turk, the author of Academic Freedom in Conflict: The Struggle over Free Speech Rights in the University (2014). “This is the value that universities have traditionally upheld, because it’s vital to the work they do. We can’t educate people and we can’t educate the public unless you have free expression in your institution.”

The censorship of libraries, funding for public arts productions and government involvement in impeding free speech in Canada are all topics that will be on the centre’s agenda, said Turk, a long-time champion of academic freedom. In a speech at the School of Journalism last November, he examined how codes of conduct threaten academic freedom in universities.

Ryerson tied with four other schools for best upholding practices of “open discussion of controversial ideas on campus,” according to the 2014 Campus Freedom Index compiled by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). The centre’s mission is “to defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through litigation and education.”

Michael Kennedy, JCCF’s communications and development coordinator, said in an email that in terms of free expression practices on campus, “it is hard to get much better” than Ryerson. The upcoming centre, he said, will bolster the university’s already “strong, demonstrated commitment to free expression.”

The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), on the other hand, tied with four other schools for worst practices in upholding free expression in all of Canada.

Examples of the RSU’s problematic practices included a refusal to ratify a men’s issues group in 2013, and this year’s refusal to ratify a pro-life group. The RSU spent its second year in a row on the top-10 worst students’ unions on the index.

Incoming RSU vice president of education Cormac McGee says that’s one thing the recently elected Transform Ryerson slate intends to fix.

“It’s going to be less about turning down views that we don’t agree with and more focus on…letting people or groups operate that we don’t necessarily agree with but have the right to operate on campus,” McGee says. “If there’s any place that you should be able to speak your mind…it should be on a university campus.”

“Universities are a safe space to be critical of each other and to be critical of things, that’s what we’re here to do,” McGee adds. “We’re not here just to blindly follow what’s pushed out, and I guess that’s what this [Free Expression] centre is for, and that’s really great.”

Kennedy says the JCCF would be happy to work with the RSU on these issues. One first step, he suggested, would be to cancel the policy banning student groups from proselytizing (changing someone’s opinions or beliefs).

Another would be to repeal a 2013 motion banning people, groups and events promoting misogyny. This same motion prevented the ratification of the men’s issues group and the pro-life group.

Turk has been active around campus this year organizing events related to journalism and free expression, including panels on secrecy in the Canadian health system, the impact of budget constraints on investigative journalism and, most recently, the teleconference with Edward Snowden. He is also a co-organizer of an upcoming one-day conference exploring constraints on the public’s right to know. Flying Blind: The right to know, government obstruction, and fixing access in Canada will take place May 8 at the Ryerson School of Journalism. The lineup includes experts on access to information including the information commissioner of Canada, professors and journalists.

In its first year, the new centre will be funded by the university’s provost and the Faculty of Communication and Design. Turk said it is too early in the process to get an exact cost of establishing the centre. Later on, he said, it will be funded by external sources with the exception of government.

Dasha Zolota is a fourth-year student at the Ryerson University School of Journalism.