By: Mnrupe Virk

Attendees at the Governing Council Town Hall on March 1 voiced a great deal of criticism about the U of T’s  Code of Student Conduct. U of T administration’s recent usage of the code has raised concerns among student leaders and activists.

Established in 1992 (and most recently revised in 2002), the Code of Student Conduct outlines accepted student behaviour. It lists non-academic offenses and the procedures and sanctions used when those offenses arise.

The code has faced criticism since its inception, but the recent surge of attention is the result of a planned administrative update of the code. Joeita Gupta, a current member of Governing Council and Vice President External for the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS), and Oriel Varga, a previous Uof T governor (2004-05) and Executive Director of APUS, have been especially vocal in stressing the update as a “cause of concern for student activists, student leaders and the student community broadly speaking.”

Gupta and Varga advocate abolishing the code altogether. They argue that the contents of the code and the recent history of its usage demonstrate that it is a “political tool” of repression, a means to “silence dissent and stifle activism.”

Gupta believes that a perfunctory examination of the code reveals a sense of “redundancy” in comparison to other existing university policies. She points out that the university already has policies in place for many of the areas addressed in the code (sexual harassment, residence misconduct, etc.). Members of the university community are not exempt from national laws, so serious violations on campus, Gupta argues, would fall under the Code of Criminal Conduct.

“The only thing that comes solely under the jurisdiction of the code is the matter of regulating dissent, and the matter of regulating protest,” said Gupta. “It has primarily been used against people who have been critical of university policies.”

In light of recent events, Gupta’s criticism appears valid. In February 2002, students who protested against a code revision enabling dual prosecution (i.e., an individual could be charged under both the Code of Conduct and criminal law) received threats of investigation and prosecution under the code. In March 2008, 14 students who participated in a sit-in protest against fee increases were charged and arrested under the code. In March 2009, two students were threatened with misconduct under the code after painting water-soluble handprints on campus buildings to promote Envirofest.

The code applies to all registered students. “Students are treated as a different class of people, with a different set of guidelines,” said Gupta. “Nobody knows about the code and yet everybody is subjected to it.”

Gupta and Varga argue for students’ right to protest. They note how huge changes have been brought to the university as a result of student protest, such as on-campus childcare. “The very existence of the code is a problem in the context of the university, which is supposed to nurture free speech, dissent, debate and discussion,” Gupta explained.

Gupta, Varga, and several student groups have proposed alternatives to the code. A student bill of rights, a human rights code of campus, and the formation of a committee with greater student representation to draft a new policies are among the options. At a recent Governing Council meeting, Vice-Provost of Students Jill Matus suggested the possibility of abolishing the code if opposition to it became widespread.

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