University of Calgary students win Facebook free speech battle

Students Steven and Keith Pridgen were suspended from the University of Calgary two years ago, for comments they made against their Law and Society course professor in November 2007, on the Facebook page “I no longer fear Hell; I took a course with Aruna Mitra.”

The Pridgen v. University of Calgary, 2010 ABQB 644 case report quotes the Pridgen twins’ Facebook comments:

On November 13th 2007, Steven said: “Some how I think she just got lazy and gave everybody a 65….that’s what I got. Does anybody know how to apply to have it remarked?”

On August 26th 2008, Keith said: “Hey fellow LWSO. homees .. So I am quite sure Mitra is NO LONGER TEACHING ANY COURSES WITH THE U OF C !!!!! Remember when she told us she was a longterm professor? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn’t able to do it … lucky us. Well anyways I think we should all congratulate ourselves for leaving a Mitrafree legacy for future L.S.W.O. students!”

In addition to the Pridgen twins’ comments, according to Macleans: on campus, the Facbeook group “contained comments from at least 10 other students, one of whom compared Mitra to a shoe.”

The Pridgen twins — charged with “non-academic misconduct which included probation” — fought the allegations issued by the Interim Dean of the Faculty of Communications and Culture, Dean Tettey. On his Education Law Blog, Noah Sarna notes how “the university maintains that the twins made unsubstantiated allegations that violated the school’s student code of conduct.” In his article, Sarna goes on to highlight important questions, such as “does the university consider the comments to be defamation or a milder form of wrongdoing that nonetheless violated the student code?”

Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench recently ruled in the students favor, deciding that the University of Calgary infringed upon their chartered rights, their freedom to express. In her findings, the Honourable Madam Justice Jo’Anne Strekaf — who heard the case on June 11th 2010 and released her decision to the public on October 12th 2010 — said “students should not be prevented from expressing critical opinions regarding the subject matter or quality of the teaching they are receiving.”

The university failed to accept the defeat, and thus on November 26th 2010, The Globe and Mail reported that the university filed a notice to appeal. According to the Toronto Sun, University of Calgary spokesman James Stevenson made a statement saying “by filing the notice to appeal, the University of Calgary seeks clarity on the extent to which the Charter applies to its own operations and those of other post-secondary institutions in Canada.”

The university’s appeal aside, after winning their case, the brothers told CBC Newsthey hope the decision will help students feel freer to complain when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.” The Charlatan quotes Steve Pridgen saying “the realization that, if Keith and I won, there may be a precedent forming which could be used to protect unwanted speech on campus, I believe [is what] caused this [case] to continue so far.” 

In supporting the notion that students should be free to express their opinions about professors, Faculty of Law student Heather Beyko, from the University of Calgary, highlights that anonymous teacher evaluations are beneficial for staff but not for students, and thus Facebook “provides students with an outlet to share their opinions with other fellow students.”

A CBC News poll asked: “Should students be free to publicly criticize their teachers online?” 75.05% of voters said Yes, while 24.95% said No. In continuing with the latter opinion, some comments made in response to the The Globe and Mail article “University of Calgary appeals Facebook ruling” refer to this case one of cyber-bullying.  

What do you think — should this Facebook conversation have been free to flow without interruption or were the comments irresponsibly taken too far?