The Pridgen Case and Freedom of Speech On the Canadian Campus

Tomorrow, the Alberta Court of Appeal will hear arguments on the Pridgen case. The issue involves the use of Facebook postings to criticize a University of Calgary professor, contrary to the student code of conduct. In the lower court case, Madam Justice Strekaf considered whether the subsequent finding of non-academic misconduct by the Pridgen brothers was a violation of freedom of expression under s.2(b) of the Charter. Ultimately she ruled there was a violation and the restriction could not be justified under s.1 of the Charter.

The issue of freedom of speech on campus is troubling. Universities are seen as the defender of academic independence and the protector of free thought. Through this freedom, critical thought is created, nourished, and encouraged. Innovation and excellence is the by-product of free thought. To restrict it, results in a withering effect and a loss of free debate on controversial issues. Thus, there is a societal interest in protecting free expression on campus. Our democratic tradition demands it.

On the other hand, as mentioned in previous posts, freedom of expression is not absolute under our Canadian Charter. Speech can be restricted but only if justified in a free and democratic society. There have been campus cases where Facebook postings were restricted justifiably. Those cases, however, involved threats of harm attracting Criminal Code sanctions. In contrast, the Pridgen case involved no threats and there was no evidence of resultant "injury" before the discipline council. Certainly, the comments were unkind, but were they the kind of expression we want to restrict on a University campus?

The answer will be left to the Court on Wednesday when the freedom to express oneself on campus will be tested. We will await the decision to see if the Pridgen brothers receive a pass or a fail.