University of Calgary grapples with free speech

Students at the University of Calgary (U of C) have found themselves amidst a controversy as Confederate flags were painted on two large boulders on campus, according the university’s student paper, The Gauntlet

‘The Rock,’ as students refer to the boulders, are located outside of the MacEwan Student Centre on the U of C campus.

Branden Cave, president of the University of Calgary Students’ Union, said in an email, that the Rock is a public space and is not regulated by any group on campus.

The confederate flag painted on the boulders was accompanied with the messages, “Heritage not hate” and “Robert E. Lee did nothing wrong.”

Lee was a general in the Army of Northern Virginia, a Southern army during the American Civil War, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Upon seeing the flag on the boulders, several students immediately painted over it, changing it to depict peace symbols, a heart, and the phrase, “Canada loves all people,” according to a CBC article. 

Despite the hurried reaction by students to cover up the painting of the flag to reflect messages of peace and love, the U of C emailed a statement to the CBC stating their complete support for free expression among students on the university’s campus, no matter how controversial, as long as it is done in a “safe and respectful manner.”

According to the Gauntlet, the rocks have been a campus fixture since 1968. But, the article notes that there’s an unwritten rule that students should wait 24 hours before repainting the rocks.

History of the flag

According to Andrew Johnston, a Carleton University history professor, the flag that was painted on the rock at U of C was technically not the official flag of the rebel “confederacy” during the American Civil War, but the flag of general Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Johnston said in an email it was later adopted as the upper left corner of a larger flag by the state of Mississipi and was also adopted as half the flag for the state of Georgia from 1956-2001.

“South Carolina also controversially flew the Battle Flag version at the Statehouse until it was removed after Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston,” he added.

Johnston  explained that the particular battle flag, which was periodically flown after the civil war at veterans commemorations, only became a widespread symbol of the South’s “heritage” in the context of its resistance to postwar civil rights.

When asked why people find the flag offensive, he said that aside from the fact that it could reasonably be construed as an emblem of treason in U.S. history, its use by the Ku Klux Klan and other “racist organizations” indicate it as a symbol of white-supremacy.

“If it’s merely heritage, critics point out, then it belongs in a museum,” Johnston said.

Free speech on campus

According to Cave, the U of C Students’ Union believes that universities must be a place of open yet respectful dialogue for students to learn and grow as a community.

“We strongly believe that the principles of inclusion and appreciation for diversity need to be extended to any use of the Rock as a public forum,” he said.

Clare Hickie, a U of C psychology student, told the Gauntlet that she thinks the confederate flag is an “explicit discriminatory message.”

Hickie repainted the rock with messages like “Black lives matter” and “one campus, one love,” according to the Gauntlet article.

Free speech at Carleton University

In January 2013, several Carleton University students founded the group ‘Carleton Students for Liberty’ and built a ‘free speech wall,’ which was promptly vandalized and torn down by other students for supposedly featuring homophobic sentiments, according to a 2013 Charlatan article.

Carleton Students for Liberty (CSFL) campus co-ordinator Ian CoKehyeng told the Charlatan in 2013 that the display was to promote free speech and it was in compliance with the law.

Ryan Flannagan, the university’s director of student affairs at the time, agreed with CoKehyeng. 

“While the university never officially approved this activity, we did have an interest in ensuring certain key issues were being addressed,” he told the Charlatan

Carleton University’s Human Rights Policies and Procedures document states, “the University must uphold academic freedom and encourage intellectual and scholarly debate,” and “members of the University community may not engage in abusive, violent, threatening or disruptive behavior.” The document also prohibits discrimination and harassment.

Claiming responsibility 

Andrew Moon, a third-year political science student at U of C, later approached the Gauntlet to claim responsibility for painting the confederate flag on the rocks.

He told the Gauntlet that he is “proud to display the flag.”

“There are many people of colour such as myself who do not have a problem with the flag and also choose to proudly display it. As I wrote, the flag represents southern culture and heritage, which is not exclusive to whites, and does not represent hate,” Moon told the Gauntlet in an email.