The Pridgen Case: An University Is Not A Charter-free Zone

As predicted, the Alberta Court of Appeal unanimously upheld the lower Court’s decision in the Pridgen case, agreeing the University’s Academic Council was unreasonable when they disciplined the Pridgen brothers for the less than polite remarks made about their University professor on their Facebook page. For details of the Alberta Queens Bench decision see my earlier posting of the issue here.

Although the result is not surprising, what is a disappointment is the lack of unanimity on the issue of the application of the Charter. Only Madame Justice Paperny tackled the issue of the Charter, the other two concurring Justices preferred to decide the issue on administrative law alone. Even so, Justice Paperny’s excellent analysis, should give the University some pause for thought as she emphasized the absurdity of the University’s position, which would make the University, a bastion of learning and free thought, a “Charter-free zone.” Clearly, the University’s reluctance to allow the Charter into the hallowed halls of learning irked Madame Paperny and so it should us all: a place that teaches the precepts of the Charter should be ruled by it.

In any event, the question of the Charter applying involves an argument over the breadth of the authority of the Charter. Under section 32 of the Charter, the statute governs the relationship between the government and the individual only and does not cover private relationships. Thus, the University, tried to distance itself from Charter requirements by characterizing the student/University relationship as a contractual one between two private parties. Of course, as pointed out by Justice Paperny, the University’s relationship with students is not a mere contractual one. Additionally, the University is far from a private institution as it receives government funds and fulfills government policy. Indeed, there would be no need for the Minister of Advanced Education if the government were not truly a partner in post-secondary education.

Once a determination is made that the Charter does apply, it then becomes difficult to suggest the Pridgen twins did not have a right to express themselves under s. 2(b) on the issue of professor performance or, shall we say, the lack of performance. Granted their comments were not “nice” but they fell well short of defamation and were in the realm of fair comment and fair complaint.

One wonders how the Pridgen scenario differs from the kind of student evaluations done under the auspices of the University. Feedback forms include an area for comments on the teacher. The only difference is the ability for the comments to be viewed by others who have access to the Facebook page. However, can that factor alone attract such harsh consequences? Thankfully, the Court of Appeal said “no” but unfortunately, the full court did not go the extra step and embrace the Charter, and the values for which the Charter stands, by finding the University is not a Charter-free zone.

A Message Of Tolerance

Relying upon s.2(b) freedom of expression rights under the Charter, Judge Bascom of the Alberta Provincial Court stayed a trespassing charge against William Whatcott, who received the trespass notice when distributing anti-gay literature at the University of Calgary. An indefinite ban was also lifted. This decision is consistent with other decisions on hate speech: no matter how abhorrent the message may be, there is expressive content in the communication and therefore protected under s.2(b).

Another factor for Judge Bascom was the place of the communication. This too is consistent with expression cases, as discussed in my November 17 blog on the City of Montreal case. According to Judge Bascom, the fact the incident occurred at a University was significant as "the concept of free expression is part of the University of Calgary philosophy." Interesting comment in light of the Pridgen case as discussed in my blog post here.

William Whatcott has not only been the subject of a Provincial Court decision, but also a Supreme Court of Canada case. Whatcott's case, in which he argued the hate speech provision of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code is unconstitutional, is currently on reserve. Further information can be found in my blog postings here.

The determination of Charter rights are complex when faced with competing rights such as s. 2(b) freedom of expression versus the right not be discriminated against under s.15 of the Charter. In those instances, we, as a society, must look to the Courts to balance both rights meaningfully and fairly, in the context of Charter values, to come to the appropriate decision. 

Sometimes, society can also take some sage advice from those individuals, who we deem wise and worthy. I end this blog with a link to a message from Nobel Prize recipient, Lord Bertrand Russell. The message of tolerance can be heard here.