Law professor slams suspension of Calgary teens who posted audio of principal using N-word

A law professor says students suspended by the Calgary Catholic School District for sharing an audio recording of their principal online should sue the school board. 

On Wednesday, CBC News reported that multiple students from St. Michael School had been suspended after sharing a recording online of their principal using the N-word in a discussion with a group of Black students. 

“So how come it’s OK for you to say [the N-word]?” principal Lianne Anderson asked a group of Black students, questioning their use of the word.

University of Ottawa professor of law Amir Attaran said the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of expression — which includes the freedom to publish. 

“I have no doubt whatsoever that the Catholic school board broke the law, broke the constitutional rights of these students when it disciplined them for publishing the principal saying the N-word.”

Amir Attaran, professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, says the Catholic school board broke the law and violated the students’ rights. (CBC)

The Calgary Catholic board has defended the principal’s use of the word, stating she only used it for “educational purposes.”

“”The word was more so used in a situation to explain, like, ‘If it’s not OK for me to use the word, why is it OK for you to use the word?'” said district spokesperson Sandra Borowski. “I think the whole point was to kind of clarify that, bottom line, the use of the word is just generally unacceptable for anyone.”

Attaran said it appears to him the students are being punished for embarrassing the principal, which is not a valid public purpose. 

“These students have been disciplined for publishing something that their principal unwisely said. [The suspension] would have to be justified to be legal, and I can see no justification for it,” he said.  

“This appears to be nothing other than punishing the students for embarrassing the principal. And there certainly is no obvious objective served by punishing them, apart from, of course, saving the Catholic school board and the principal embarrassment.”

Attaran said the students and their families should consider suing the board.

“Those children and their families need to challenge this, they need to attack it,” he said. “And I mean that with the greatest of sympathy and respect for the difficulty they’ve gone through.” 

University of Calgary law professor Howard Kislowicz said the families could likely do that by arguing that the suspension was a violation of the students’ right to freedom of expression. 

“And if it is, is it an unreasonable infringement?” he said.

“Publishing on a website or however it was initially published is a kind of expression. It’s pretty clear, I think, that that would count as as expression, and here they’re being disciplined for that and for that expression. It seems like there’s a pretty obvious argument that this was an infringement of their freedom of expression.”

University of Calgary law professor Howard Kislowicz suggests the families look into administrative appeals. (CBC)

Attaran said if he were their lawyer, he would argue that the code of conduct was applied unconstitutionally.

“And I would seek to have it quashed by the court,” he said. “What possible purpose is there in such a code when in every other public context it is legal to record somebody without giving them notice?”

Kislowicz said what the families involved can do now is look into whatever appeals exist in the Education Act.

“There are often what we call administrative appeals, so there’s often an ability to appeal the decision of a school principal, for example, to a school board or a board of trustees,” he said.

Attaran said if this same incident had occurred at a private school, it would not generally be subject to the charter. 

“The charter applies to the action of the state and its agents, and a public school is the state,” he said. “So it would, in my view, be a difficult situation if this were a private school.”

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