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Campus Freedom Index received with skepticism at McGill

Last Tuesday, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) released their Campus Freedom Index for 2013, with the McGill administration receiving D’s in both policies and practices and the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) receiving a D in policies and an F in practices. Since its release, however, the report has become the subject of debate on campus, with members of the McGill community criticizing the JCCF for its methodology and political background.

The JCCF report uses a letter-grade system of A to F to rate the freedom of speech on 45 public university campuses across Canada, in terms of the practices and policies of each university administration and student union.

The organization behind the report has received criticism for allegedly having a political agenda, as several key figures involved in the JCCF have been connected to conservative organizations  including the Wildrose Alliance, the federal Reform Party, and the Manning Centre. SSMU Vice-President External Samuel Harris expressed skepticism regarding the validity of the organization behind the grades.

“Given the direct implication of this organization with the right-wing fringe, this report has no credibility,” Harris said.

According to Michael Kennedy, the centre’s communications and development coordinator, SSMU’s failing grade was partially a result of an incident that took place in 2009.

“SSMU Council […] warned the student group Choose Life that if it went ahead with a planned lecture by Jose Ruba titled ‘Echoes of the Holocaust,’ it would have its funding revoked,” Kennedy said.

The report also points to an incident in 2012 when SSMU requested that the group McGill Friends of Israel change the name of an event called “Israel-A-Party.” Harris explained that SSMU executives at the time requested the name change because it was parodying the term Apartheid during Israel Apartheid Week.

“The name of the ‘Israel A-Party’ event was meant to provoke and incite other student groups rather than focus on being its own event, which is something that the SSMU tries to avoid,” Harris said. “It has never been SSMU’s intention to stifle free speech or choose sides in what we know is a very contentious issue. And we do admit that it is a very fine line. But to call us a ‘failure’ on free speech […] is ridiculous.”

Elisabeth Gidengil, a political science professor at McGill, said that the report contains several methodological oversights.

“The grading scheme for student union practices is troubling,” Gidengil said. “[It] risks being somewhat subjective as there is no explicit linking back to the criteria that are used to award the grades.”

Gidengil suggested that the group could improve the methodology’s transparency by linking a description of each grade to the occurrence that caused it. She said the criteria for each letter grade are inconsistent, sometimes resulting in union and university policies being graded twice.

“Some criteria for a grade of A, D and F are spelled out but the only criterion for a B or C are the grades received for the student union’s policies,” Gidengil said. “These are default criteria, employed because the student union’s commitment to free speech has not been tested […] The latter wording is identical for awarding a B or C. The net result is that a union [or university] whose commitment has not been tested is effectively graded twice over on its policies.”

Gidengil added that the grades may not have been cross-validated.

“Did more than one person independently award grades and were the grades then compared?” she said. “If so, how were discrepancies resolved?”

Kennedy responded to criticism of the index’s credibility—both political and methodological—by saying that the authors are unbiased and that they condemn the censorship of many groups in addition to pro-life groups.

“The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is non-partisan, and dedicated to defending the human rights and constitutional freedoms of each and every Canadian,” Kennedy said. “The Campus Freedom Index makes clear that censorship can affect all students regardless of their views. There are many examples documented in the Index of censorship against both Students Against Israeli Apartheid and pro-Israel clubs, pro-life, and atheist clubs, partisans of all stripes, marijuana enthusiasts, and so on.”

McGill University has not released a statement on the index and does not plan to, according to Director of Internal Communications Doug Sweet.

“We don’t have any comment,” Sweet said. “The university made some very strong and clear statements about standing up for freedom of expression last year and we certainly stand by those statements.”

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