Expelling the messenger

As someone who was hounded by the McMaster Students Union’s attempts to have me charged with “harassment” under McMaster University’s Student Code of Conduct, it should come as no surprise that I do not support these codes.

Non-academic codes of conduct have received a great deal of attention lately with student unions at the University of Ottawa and University of Toronto protesting codes, arguing that the codes violate their freedom of speech. The Canadian Federation of Students — the largest student lobby group in Canada — also recently came out against codes. These codes regulate behavior of students on campus and give the university the right to punish students for creating disruptions, not only on the basis of their academic performance.

I was guilty of “harassment” under the code of conduct at McMaster because of blog posts and newspaper columns that were critical of the students’ union. At McMaster, harassment is defined as “any unwelcome communication,” a definition that is uncomfortably broad for anyone concerned with the free exchange of ideas.

Much like Canada’s human rights tribunals, the odds of successfully defending myself against the charges were such that I stood a better chance of winning Powerball even though I don’t live in the United States.

Realizing this, I plead guilty and was forced to sign a behavioural contract saying I would not “harass” the McMaster Students’ Union. I completely ignored it. Instead, I blocked access to my blog from all on-campus computers at McMaster, daring the students’ union and university to come after me for my conduct off-campus. Neither party did.

Despite my experience, I do believe student codes of conduct have a role to play at universities.

The problem is not the concept, it is the implementation.

Most Canadian university codes of conduct are open to abuse. There are no checks and balances in the systems. Being charged with an offence is effectively the same as being found guilty.

The Criminal Code has many laws that, as written, are open to abuse as well.

The difference is that between universities and society at large is a competent independent judiciary which balances the rights of the individual against the need to maintain good order. The Prime Minister or his agents cannot (security certificates are a major exception) order the detention of political opponents. A university president can easily order punishment against a student with university “judiciary panels” serving as mere rubber stamps.

I am opposed to the code because of this lack of proper judicial process.

There is, of course, a need for some sort of procedure to respond to situations that occur on campuses. When one considers recent research showing brain development is not complete until age 24 and that the “risk centres” of the brain are not fully developed, it becomes clear why universities need to have some rules. University students are in a phrase of human development where risks are taken and stupid mistakes are made. A code of conduct enables a student to learn from their mistakes without a criminal record.

If there is no code of conduct, the university is left with two options; either ignore the offence or lay criminal charges. I do not believe opponents of student codes of conduct want students facing criminal charges for mistakes they make on campus.

Students unions should be sitting down with their administrations to create codes which protect free speech and the right to peaceful, orderly protest on campuses. (Memo activists: forcible confinement, banging on windows, and interrupting classes by the indoor use of megaphones is not a form of peaceful, orderly protest.)

They must demand a system that protects students rights and gives fair due process to the accused. I believe universities should be required to hire professional retired judges to oversee the process.

The landscape of university judicial affairs is changing in Canada. After years of growth in the number of “judicial affairs officers,” there are enough for the creation of a new division of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services.

The Canadian Academic Integrity and Student Judicial Affairs (CAISJA) hopes to improve the quality of judicial affairs at Canadian colleges and universities. They will hold their first meeting in three weeks. Hopefully, the creation of professional standards for judicial affairs officers will bring fairness to university disciplinary processes. If I were a student union president, I would see this as an opportunity to fix the system.

Students unions are more than welcome to take a principled stance against universities acting in any non-academic disciplinary role. That is a defensible position. However, if a students union takes this stand, it cannot complain when universities hand student conduct matters over to the police and criminal charges are laid.

The present battle between students unions and universities is ridiculous. Neither side is being reasonable. Universities fail to consider the flaws of their systems, preferring to wield absolute power and students unions fail to realize the benefits of a disciplinary system that keeps students out of the criminal courts.