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UBC thought police at it again

University of British Columbia president David Strangway has struck a blow at the heart of the civil liberties of the campus population. He has circulated a memo decrying the content of two posters placed around campus, ordered campus security to remove them, and asked for information about the authors and distributors of the posters.

One poster depicted dean of arts Patricia Marchak as a misguided St. George leading the dragons of racism, sexism and bigotry against the innocent victim of political correctness, in the name of free speech. The other poster (which we have not seen) apparently equates the political science department with the Ku Klux Klan.

In his memo, Dr. Strangway says that the posters are illegal: libelous and slanderous attacks which impugn the integrity of those they attack, and which fall beyond the legal limits of free speech.

BCCLA President Kay Stockholder said, “We regard Dr. Strangway’s actions as an unwarranted and unjustified attack on free speech at the university. He is simply wrong in labelling the posters as illegal. Although a person may claim that they have been libelled or slandered and take court action, it is up to the court to decide whether libel or slander has occurred; it is not up to Dr. Strangway.”

Furthermore, it is not illegal to make fair comment on public figures, so long as the comment is made in good faith, without malice, and on a matter of public interest. As one court put it: “The defence of fair comment… is an essential part of the greater right of free speech. It is the right of every man to comment freely, fairly and honestly on any matter of public interest….”

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that postering is a form of expression protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a decision striking down an anti-postering bylaw, the court said such a bylaw would “subvert achievement of the Charter’s basic purpose… i.e., the free exchange of ideas, open debate of public affairs and the pursuit of knowledge and truth.”

This is a lesson about democracy that senior Chinese official Li Peng recently learned when he demanded that his Canadian hosts remove protesters who were calling him “The Butcher of Beijing”. Li was politely informed that casting aspersions on others, especially public figures, was part and parcel of democracy in Canada. It appears that Dr. Strangway needs to be reminded of this too.

“We will be in a sorry state if the day ever comes when it is illegal to post satirical cartoons, or to make remarks found hurtful by their targets,” said Ms. Stockholder. “Dr. Strangway’s attack on satire and ridicule, traditional instruments of political speech, as impolite, strikes at the heart of civil liberties. If the law protected only coolly rational speech, the avenues for free speech and expression would be narrow indeed.”

Dr. Strangway’s memo, which appears to make veiled threats to punish those responsible for the posters, can only cast a pall upon the entire university community.

“What would he do if he knew their identity?” asked Ms. Stockholder, “Expel them from the university for putting up posters?”

Such attempts to legislate courtesy have the potential to create an atmosphere in which people avoid commenting on contentious issues, and impose upon themselves a self-censorship that dampens much needed debate, and even thought, on difficult issues.

Ms. Stockholder said, “The net effect of such policies would be a campus where individuals kept their thoughts to themselves, kept their heads down against the prevailing winds, and went about their private business unconcerned about the well being of their fellows. It is outrageous that the president of a major Canadian university should make such an attack on the principles of free speech and expression, which constitute the foundation of a university in a democratic society.”