Freedom of Speech Concerns at Western University

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It was only my first day of grad school, and I was already sick of reading e-mails.

“Is this going to be more spam?” I sighed while refreshing my inbox. But the message that appeared caught my eye. It was entitled “Freedom of Speech and Assembly” and it was from the Acting Dean of the Faculty of Information and Media Sciences. The information conveyed in the message contents was a second-hand account of a group of student demonstrators. The protesters were handing out pamphlets to students at O-Week on September 4th, when they were supposedly asked to leave by Campus Police.

As someone who values freedom of speech, I was horrified and have been following the story ever since.

I have been thinking about information rights and policy, and wondering what factors came into play here. I’ve been wondering what judgment calls were made here by authorities, particularly regarding students’ rights to transmit potentially significant information. And I have been thinking about the nature of this information, how it has manifested, and what the repercussions of these physical expressions have been.

Braman (1989:239) describes information as a potentially constitutive force, meaning that it can change and mould elements within society. She argues that policymakers should consider it their responsibility to judge whether certain information presents a constitutive force, or if it can be considered a commodity.

Has the university deemed that its students’ awareness of rising tuition fees and corporate involvement is unnecessary? Should the sanctity of the apparently euphoric O-Week be “shielded” from this kind of discourse?

As Western has released no official statement, and officials have merely said that students were asked to move, the information regarding their position remains obscure.

However, a current FIMS student named Jordan Coop has posted an entry on the website for OPENWIDE, which is self-described as “FIMS’ Alternative Publication”. The article, entitled “O-Week to Activists: Your Presence is Not Welcome Here“, includes photographic data of the protest, a first-hand account of what happened, and even a link to the pamphlet the students distributed.

The pamphlets were distributed personally to (mostly first-year) students who were going about their O-Week activities. Turner (2010:5) argues that people prefer to talk to others when seeking and using information. In accordance with this, the demonstrators claimed that their interactions were largely positive and the students quite receptive. Coop writes that they had some rewarding discussions with students, many of whom indicated that they were also frustrated with the rising costs of tuition. Their efforts to inform were largely successful that night.

That is, until the protestors were told to leave by Campus Police.

Turner says that memory is social, rather than individual. Shared experiences, ideas, and language constructs result from constitutive information. Thus, what can be described as social fact is a form of information, categorized in that way becauseĀ  consensus has been reached to do so. I can’t help but wonder what Western University’s policymakers would do if more students chose to march together on this, or any topic that contradicts the university’s corporate strategies.

I came into this program interested in recording and preserving local history, but it looks like I might leave it as an activist.

SOME FURTHER READING ON THIS SERIOUS ISSUE:

http://www.fims.uwo.ca/about/news/news_items/13-09-20/Freedom_of_speech_and_assembly.aspx

http://www.westerngazette.ca/2013/09/26/western-usc-fail-on-free-speech/

Works Cited

  • Braman, S. (1989). Defining information: An approach for policymakers. Telecommunications Policy, 13(3), 233-242.
  • Buckland, M. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society of Information Science, 42(5), 351-360.
  • Coop, J. (September 4, 2013). O-Week to Activists: Your Presence is Not Welcome Here. In OPENWIDE. Retrieved September 10, 2013, from http://openwidezine.com/2013/09/04/o-week-to-activists-your-presence-is-not-welcome-here/.
  • Turner, D. (2010). Orally-based information. Journal of Documentation, 66(3), 370-383.
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