Monday, 5 March 2012

Abusing a student’s rights to express his views

Recently Paul Gomille, a 17-year-old student approached the principal of his Catholic school in Toronto with his proposal to speak about the girls in his school and he asked for permission to address them. His proposal was initially met favourably, especially since the school received much public attention earlier this year when administrators noted that many of the female student body were hiking their kilt skirts too high. Principal Donna Modeste, according to Paul, welcomed the positive nature of his message.

Principal Modeste however objected to a particular section of Paul’s letter, which she felt was too judgmental. For this reason, she decided that Paul she would not permit Paul to address the girls in the school via the public address system.

The speech he wanted to give was on the topic of a woman’s inner beauty that is because he clearly believes that many of his female peers do not treat each other, or themselves, with due respect, and he wishes that everyone would focus more on how wonderful they are on the inside and not how attractive they can make themselves on the outside. This is what he put in his written message.

“The people this message concerns are the young women of this school, and of the world. In particular, it concerns the silent ones, the intelligent ones, the ones that don’t talk about people behind their backs, the ones that guys don’t flock to in droves, the ones that don’t dress in revealing clothing, the ones who would love to be in love, and the ones that are continually disappointed in their appearance because the only thing they have to compare themselves to are the women that have been put on pedestals by our society. This message also concerns those of you who may consider yourselves the so called “opposite” to the demographic I just described. The ones who do dress in revealing clothing, and the ones who try to fit in with the crowd.

“You don’t need to dress or act a certain way to fit in, to feel attractive, or to BE attractive. You’re all far more attractive than you realize. All of you. But that’s not to say that you should all dress in revealing clothing. No, not at all. Sure, a girl who dresses that way might turn a few heads, and get some compliments. But real attractiveness doesn’t come from wearing the latest fashion and it doesn’t come from being scantily clad in public, or putting on make-up, or having a pretty face, or a nice body. No. Real attractiveness comes from having a certain dignity. It comes from having class. It comes from being true to yourself, being yourself, and being comfortable in your own skin. This message is for all young women within the sound of my voice and beyond. You’re all beautiful. You all have inner beauty AND outer beauty.”

I see absolutely nothing he said in the text that was offensive. If fact, I think it was well written and that the message was an important one for girls to consider.

His principal requested changes be made with respect to part of his speech. Rather than comply, Paul chose instead of distribute his speech, in its original form, by handing out copies of the text in the school cafeteria on Valentine’s Day (2012)

Because he circulated this speech in the school cafeteria, Paul was suspended for two days. The reason for the suspension? It was his so-called opposition to authority. As far as the principal of his school was concerned, the boy’s actions constituted an act of rebellion against someone in authority in his school a school authority—to wit: his principal.

This principal of that school has through her actions convinced me that she doesn’t fully appreciate Canada’s Charter of Rights which guarantees everyone in Canada the right to free speech. She certainly can deny a student the privilege of addressing the students through the school’s public address system but I don’t see how she can deny any student the right to hand out to his fellow students his views on any subject he chooses providing the text isn’t offensive and it isn’t done while classes are in session.

As far as Paul was concerned, the people his message concerned were the young women of his school, and of the world. In particular, it concerned the silent girls, intelligent girls, the girls that don’t talk about other girls behind their backs, the girls that guys don’t flock to in droves, the girls that don’t dress in revealing clothing, the girls who would love to be in love, and the girls that are continually disappointed in their appearance because the only thing they have to compare themselves to are the women that have been put on pedestals by society. This message also concerns those girls who may consider themselves the so called opposite to the demographic he had described. His message was addressed to both the girls who do dress in revealing clothing and the girls who try to fit in with the crowd.

The principal certainly has the right to deny any student the right to make a public address during school hours. But does that same right extend to blocking a student from distributing a leaflet that he printed up himself, during his lunch hour? Does the school board intend to take the position that it has the absolute right over any form of written communication its students may wish to distribute during their own time and at their own expense, on school property? Would such extend to include Christmas cards or birthday invitations? Where would the rights of students with respect to the freedom of speech end in a school setting?

If so, that would be a bizarre, and a remarkably futile step to take. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this incident is that the offending material was distributed in hardcopy, rather than just placed on the Internet or sent to Twitter or Facebook which is obviously beyond the principal’s control. Reactions like the principal will only accelerate the move of intra-student communication into forums where the school has no jurisdiction.

Then there’s the issue of the content of the piece. I personally saw nothing in his proposed speech that would offend anyone. Paul has his opinions about girls but in his proposed speech, they aren’t insulting, racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic or even indelicately expressed. No specific students are named nor are anyone harassed or bullied. Even in our Zero Tolerance era, what did Paul write that was intolerant by school standards? Indeed, his message could be placed directly into a ‘Go Girls! self-esteem’ brochure without seeming to be out of place.

The fact that it is judgmental doesn’t justify the principal rights to deny a student from saying what he wishes to say. He is entitled to his judgments, and to express them in an non-offensive manner which was his intent.

Principal Modeste should have given further thought with respect to her decision to object to Paul’s presentation on the grounds that Paul’s commentary reflects his own views about the girls in his school, given that the entire Catholic school system is a faith-based institution that more or less states that people who make the wrong value judgments face eternal damnation. The idea that a Catholic school in particular would object to a value judgment, and Paul’s specific judgment, is really bizarre especially when you consider that Paul was calling for the girls in his school to have more self-respect and to not act immodestly. From the Catholic perspective, his message was clearly on-point.

Then, finally, there is the fact that Paul did not necessarily defy the principal’s authority. He originally wanted to make a public address. When Principal Modeste raised concerns with some of the content, Paul pursued another option for distributing his message. Unless Principal Modeste had explicitly ordered him to share his opinions with no one in any format (which she didn’t and if she had, it itself would have been an indefensible position) no authority was defied, and it falls upon her to justify her objections to the distribution of the piece based on its content, not its manner of circulation because that is something this principal has no authority to do.

If students can’t present their views in a school cafeteria, then we as Canadians are at risk because later, our rights to free speech will be whittled away and Canada will end up as a nation similar to Thailand and Zimbabwe where telling jokes about the royal family of Thailand and the prime minister of Zimbabwe are punishable by imprisonment.

If students in a school have no right whatsoever to engage in expressive activity on school-owned property, little opportunity would exist to exercise their freedom of expression. While section 2(b) of the Charter does not provide a right of access to students to all school property, some property will be constitutionally open to them such as cafeterias and school yards.

A number of factors are helpful to determine whether the restrictions by the school authorities have been applied to school property which is a ‘public arena such as the school cafeteria or the school yard. These factors include: the traditional openness of such property for expressive activity; whether the students are ordinarily admitted to the school property as of right; the compatibility of the school property's purpose with such activity; the impact of the school property's availability on the achievement of s. 2(b)'s purposes; the school property's symbolic significance for the message being communicated; and the availability of other public arenas in the vicinity.

The ‘traditional’ component of the public arena analysis must appreciate the ‘type’ of place historically associated with public discussion, and should not be restricted to the actual places themselves. Cafeterias and school yards, which draw large numbers of students, are contemporary places in schools and should thus be accessible to those seeking to communicate with the students in them without official restrictions unless the messages given are offensive.

The principal of Paul’s school has failed to offer an intelligible standard which would enable Paul to submit his views and opinions about the girls in his school. Her decision to refuse Paul’s right to present his message to the girls in his school can be read as an attempt to eradicate all types of expression or, more narrowly, to exclude only certain types of expression, and thus creates confusion in the minds of her students.

Although some objectives would be reasonable in justifying restrictions on expression in a school with respect to the time, place, and manner, the restrictions were not reasonable in the context and circumstances of this particular case.

The test for whether section 2(b) applies to protect expression in a particular forum depends on the class into which the restriction at issue falls. Section 2(b) of the Charter would usually be infringed if the school’s purpose was to restrict the content of expression by limiting the forums in which it can be made. A content neutral restriction, however, may not infringe freedom of expression at all.

Section 2(b) of the Charter would apply if it were established that the expression (including its time, place and manner) promoted one of the purposes underlying the guarantee of free expression: the seeking and obtaining of truth; participation in social and political decision making; and the encouragement of diversity in forms of individual self fulfillment by cultivating a tolerant, welcoming environment for the conveyance and reception of ideas.

The content of Paul’s message to his fellow students was not so offensive to warrant overriding his Charter right, since there was nothing in the purpose of his message which was incompatible with the school’s goals. The actions of the school principal in preventing Paul from presenting his views to his fellow students constitutes a blanket exclusion of free speech in the school unrelated to concerns for its function and devoid of safeguards to protect against an over reaching application.

Mister Justice Lambert of the Supreme Court of Canada when deciding on a similar issue before the court with respect to the freedom of speech said in part;

“The concept of free and uninhibited speech permeates all truly democratic societies. Caustic and biting debate is, for example, often the hallmark of election campaigns, parliamentary debates and campaigns for the establishment of new public institutions or the reform of existing practices and institutions. The exchange of ideas on important issues is often framed in colourful and vitriolic language. So long as comments made on matters of public interest are neither obscene nor contrary to the laws of criminal libel, citizens of a democratic state should not have to worry unduly about the framing of their expression of ideas. The very lifeblood of democracy is the free exchange of ideas and opinions. If these exchanges are stifled, democratic government itself is threatened.” unquote

Freedom of expression was entrenched in our Constitution. so as to ensure that everyone can manifest their thoughts, opinions, beliefs, indeed all expressions of the heart and mind, however unpopular, distasteful or contrary to the mainstream. Such protection is, in the words of the Canadian Charter, ‘fundamental’ because in a free, pluralistic and democratic society, we prize a diversity of ideas and opinions for their inherent value both to the community and to the individual.

The principal of a school should not exclude student activity from the scope of guaranteed free expression on the basis of the content or meaning being conveyed. Indeed, if the activity conveys or attempts to convey a meaning, it has expressive content and prima facie falls within the scope of the guarantee to free speech.

If the school's purpose is to restrict the content of expression by singling out particular meanings that are not to be conveyed, it necessarily limits the guarantee of free expression. If the government's purpose is to restrict a form of expression in order to control access by others to the meaning being conveyed or to control the ability of the one conveying the meaning to do so, it also limits the guarantee.

A school policy against handing out copies of a speech by a pamphleteer is a restriction on a manner of expression and is tied to content even if that restriction purports to be interpreted as disobeying one’s principal. Such a school policy aims to control access to other students with respect to an opinion being conveyed by someone else as well as to control the ability of the pamphleteer to convey his or her opinion. To restrict this form of expression, such as what Paul’s principal did when Paul handed out copies of his message, is restricting the content of his opinion.

If a school has as its aim, to control attempts to convey an opinion either by directly restricting the content of an opinion or by restricting the manner in which it is to be conveyed, then the school’s purpose entrenches upon the guarantee that an author of an opinion and everyone else in Canada has—the right to free speech.

In my opinion, the school’s principal should be severely chastised by her school board and an apology to Paul Gomille should be given to him by the principal over the school’s public address system. Further, his suspension should be removed from his school record.

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