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November 6, 2012

Noteworthy Cases – Pridgen v. University of Calgary, 2012 ABCA 139

In May 2012, the Alberta Court of Appeal found that the University of Calgary was unreasonable in its severe punishment of two of its undergrad students who criticized one of their professors on Facebook.
Two brothers, the Pridgens, were undergrad students at the University of Calgary. They, among several classmates, were unhappy with one of their professors. One of their classmates created a Facebook Page, a publicly accessible online group, where students could join and post comments on the page’s Wall. Ten students joined this group including the Pridgens. The brothers posted one comment each. The professor complained to the Faculty Dean about the Facebook group once she was alerted to it by colleagues. At the time, she was no longer employed at U of C.

The Dean found that the students were guilty of non-academic misconduct. After meeting with the Dean, sanctions were imposed, including 24 months of probation, a required letter of apology and a prohibition from posting similar comments about the professor. The Pridgens made several unsuccessful attempts to appeal the sanctions, and eventually sought judicial review by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. The Court decided that the University had breached the Pridgens’ right to freedom of expression under the Charter by imposing sanctions for their Facebook comments. U of C appealed the Court’s decision to the Alberta Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Court of Queen’s Bench and Justice Paperny found that the Pridgens’ right to freedom of expression had been infringed.

This case is a reminder that Courts will carefully scrutinize any attempts to limit the freedom of expression of individuals. Where a government-funded or affiliated entity such as a University attempts to limit the freedom of expression of its students it must carefully consider the students’ Charter right to freedom of expression, and ensure that any limitation is reasonable, justified and compliant with the Charter. In this case the Dean and the University failed to give any consideration to the Pridgens’ right to freedom of expression and as a result their decision to impose sanctions was invalid.

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