An Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has issued a precedent setting ruling that relates to Facebook comments and, specifically, whether the Charter of Rights and Freedoms can apply to universities. In the case of Pridgen v. University of Calgary, the court ruled that the post-secondary institution violated two students’ Charter rights when it sanctioned them for posting critical comments about a professor on Facebook. The students were found by the University to have committed non-academic misconduct and were placed on probation as a result of their Facebook comments. They applied for judicial review to set aside that decision on various grounds, including that their right to free expression under the Charter. The University argued before the court that the students had committed acts of defamation on Facebook.
One of the big issues in the case related to whether or not the Charter applies to universities. The University argued that the Charter only applies to government institutions and did not apply in this particular case because the University is not part of the government and was engaged in regulating its own internal affairs when disciplining the students. Earlier court decisions have left open the possibility that the Charter might apply to subordinate bodies created and supported by the government, including “many forms of delegated legislation, regulations, orders in council, possibly municipal by-laws, and by-laws and regulations of other creatures of Parliament and the legislatures”. In this particular case, the court declared that “the University is not a Charter free zone”. As a result, and considering the particular facts of this case, the court ruled that the students’ Charter rights were infringed by the manner in which they were sanctioned for their online behavior. A University spokesman has indicated that its legal staff will review the decision to determine whether there will be an appeal.