Does the CFS defend or attack freedom of speech?

CFS plays freedom of speech card to buy advertising; students’ union says CFS restricted their freedom

Either the Vancouver Sun has a good sense of humour or isn’t aware of the hilarity of the timing of an opinion piece it published today. When I first came across the op-ed titled “One of our vital freedoms is at stake in court ruling“, I assumed the freedom of speech argument was regarding the court hearing scheduled today between the Kwantlen Students’ Union and the Canadian Federation of Students.

RELATED CONTENT: CFS goes to Supreme Court to delay referendum AND Kwantlen claims victory against CFS lawsuit

But that is not the case. The article uses the freedom of speech card (rightly, in my opinion) to defend the CFS’ right to purchase advertisements on city buses in Vancouver. The CFS was rejected when they tried to buy advertising space during the provincial election in 2006 to publish “Rock the Vote” ads because of a policy banning political ads on transit. At the time, the CFS argued that their ads were not partisan, and therefore shouldn’t rejected on the basis of being political.

However, their message was close enough to NDP policies on minimum wage, tuition, and the environment that the argument didn’t fly. Elections BC, in an interview with the University of Victoria student newspaper The Martlet, said after reviewing the material that it “definitely indicated partisanship.”

The Supreme Court of BC ruled that buses are government entities. Therefore, freedom of speech should be guaranteed under the Charter, meaning that bus advertising policies can’t restrict speech. On Tuesday next week, the case will reach the Canada Supreme Court where the CFS will again argue for freedom of speech.

From the op-ed written by Jamie Mclean: “While probably based on good intentions, the GVRD policy constitutes a deliberate form of government censorship. The government does not have to provide spaces for public speech or advertisement, but once it does so it cannot then dissect Charter protected expressions into classes of suitability. To prohibit someone from expressing political views in one form or another is to establish a dangerous precedent or ‘chilling effect’ for the further erosion of free speech and other Charter rights.”

Now to the irony.

As this article sits on newsstands, still hot off the press, the CFS is in court for the second hearing regarding their petition to delay the membership referendum at Kwantlen University College. Although the court already ordered the referendum be delayed by three weeks, other disagreements must be settled, such as the referendum question and key campaign rules.

In addition to delaying the vote, the CFS sought to restrict the distribution of “campaign material” outside of the official campaign dates. I put this term in quotations because its definition is at the centre of the dispute between the KSA and CFS. According to Titus Gregory, a policy analyst at the KSA, the CFS representatives on the referendum oversight committee don’t consider CFS general materials to count—such as posters or handouts for their “I Am CFS” campaign that features ads at Skytrain stations (Vancouver’s version of the subway). But he says they do consider the KSA newsletter to be a campaign material.

The KSA calls the CFS’ demand an attack on their freedom of expression. According to a KSA statement, “On the free speech issue, the Judge disagreed strongly with the CFS, and pointed out repeatedly that we live in a free society.”