Discourse

Ryerson journalism student should not be barred from school newspaper for his religious views

Bradley, who describes himself as a libertarian, philosophically speaking, argued that "the whole point of life is to be open," and "It's OK to be a religious person. It's OK not to be a religious person."
Barbara Kay
Barbara Kay Montreal, QC

There are two student newspapers at Ryerson University: The Ryersonian—funded by the university—and the Eyeopener, which is independent, but receives $6 per student, a contribution students may not opt out of.

Jonathan Bradley, who is a contributor to The Post Millennial, is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson who by last spring had achieved the status of contributing writer for the Eyeopener after almost three years of reporting for them. He is also a practising Roman Catholic, and holds views consistent with RC doctrine.

About three years ago, Bradley had what he thought was a private conversation, via Direct Messages on Twitter, with a Ryerson classmate regarding Bradley's beliefs about sexuality. On June 3, the now-former classmate posted those comments on Twitter, labelling Bradley a bigot, homophobe and transphobe.

Bradley sought legal advice. On July 20, Bradley's libel lawyer sent the student a demand letter and notice of libel. She removed the offending tweets the same day, and on Aug. 20 issued an apology on Twitter as part of a confidential out of court settlement. A victory of sorts, but insufficient to reverse a grave consequence of her action.

The student's Twitter post set in motion a train of events that became the subject of an application Bradley filed before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, with Rye Eye Publishing Incorporated as the respondent.

On June 9, citing the public exposure of Bradley's views on Twitter by the malicious student, Eyeopener editor-in-chief Catherine Abes sent Bradley an email terminating his association with the Eyeopener. Abes wrote that although Bradley was entitled to his opinions and free to express them online (he had not; the student had), the Eyeopener was responsible for ensuring that the "Eye" community, including sources, contributors, readers and editors, felt "safe and comfortable in working with the Eyeopener and coming into our space."

Having made his opinions public, Abes concluded, "Eye" community members, especially LGBTQ members, "would no longer feel safe if you are associated with the publication." Abes adduced her Eyeopener constitutional right to refuse publication of any "[r]eports which display a sexual, racial or religious prejudice."

Abes also noted that "skew[ed]" reporting has been an "issue" with Bradley in the past. She was referring to an article Bradley wrote for The Post Millennial in which he argued for the removal of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices in Canadian universities. Bradley's viewpoint is one many conservatives and libertarians wholeheartedly support, but that Abes and other Eyeopener contributors vigorously reject.

There is nothing inherently wicked or hateful in such a viewpoint. Indeed, wherever DEI programs are in force, freedom of speech is in jeopardy, and diversity of opinion is generally in retreat. Writers of faith like Bradley are fearful of what the trend will mean for them. Abes's judgment of Bradley's critique and its consequences ironically speaks to such fears being entirely justified.

Abes directed Bradley to stop coming to the Eyeopener office or to Eyeopener social events. Abes did not cite any actual behaviour that would cause anyone at the Eyeopener to feel literally "unsafe." There is no record of any previous censure of Bradley for demonstrating in word or deed what any reasonable person would construe as aggressive, hostile or incivil. Clearly she used the term in its now familiar usage as a synonym for "offensive."

Subsequent to the email, Bradley and Abes had a longish telephone exchange, which Bradley recorded. Abes reiterated that she was "not going to subject the Ryerson community or anyone in the Eyeopener community to potentially coming into rhetoric that makes them feel unsafe or invalid in their identity." She mentioned that several members of the Eye community had told her "they're not very comfortable with what's come out."

Bradley, who describes himself as a libertarian, philosophically speaking, argued that "the whole point of life is to be open," and "It's OK to be a religious person. It's OK not to be a religious person." And "if we don't harness freedom, it's going to slip away." He offered to recuse himself from any reporting on "marginalized communities," but Abes said that was still no good, since "[t]there's going to be queer voices in every story that we have." She would not budge.

There the matter rested for several weeks.

On July 29, Carol Crosson, Bradley's human rights lawyer, sent the Eyeopener a demand letter, threatening legal action against them for discrimination in employment based on his Roman Catholic creed. On Sept 8, Lai-King Hum, the Eyeopener's lawyer, sent Crosson a rebuttal letter, stating the Eyeopener was going to defend accusations of discrimination against them. On Oct 22, Crosson sent Bradley's complaint to the HRTO. The application finished processing and was received by Hum on Nov 26. The Eyeopener had until Jan 14 to respond. That deadline was not respected.

On Jan 15, Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), sent an eloquent letter of criticism to Abes on behalf of the SAFS board. It reads in part:

"The passages from The Eyeopener's constitution that you include in your message to Mr Bradley give Eyeopener editors the power to reject pitches or submissions they judge to express prejudice, to be intended to advance political ends, or to be false, libelous, or unethical. They do not appear to justify your recent actions. First, the powers apply only to individual articles. The constitution does not entitle editors to reject material they have not seen or to order contributors not to submit their material. Second, that Mr Bradley holds whatever unpopular (at the Eyeopener) views he does or expresses them in various newspapers and magazines is not evidence that his work for the Eyeopener will express prejudice, advance political ends, be libelous, or otherwise run afoul of the constitution.

"You mention that Mr Bradley's reporting 'in the past' had been skewed by his "personal views or politics" (p. 11). Even supposing that that is true, it is no reason for refusing to consider Mr Bradley's future contributions and then to accept or reject them on their merits.

"That Mr. Bradley's views on certain topics displease you and others at the Eyeopener cannot be a sound reason to refuse to consider submissions from him and to ban him from the Eyeopener offices. It would not be a sound reason even if Mr Bradley sought to express his views in the pages of your newspaper, which, according to the [human rights statement of claim], he doesn't. A campus newspaper, certainly one owned by the students themselves, has a responsibility to be open to wide range of views and ideas.

"That responsibility has an educative component. A university is to be a place of the free and open exchange of ideas and arguments. Only if people at a university are free to speak their minds can members of the community come to understand the issues that matter to them and be able to evaluate for themselves where the truth lies. A campus newspaper that prohibits the expression of particular ideas or arguments helps to confirm the idea that a university is no place for the open discussion of controversial topics.

"…In firing Mr. Bradley, the Eyeopener is expressing its disdain for intellectual life and degrading the experience of Ryerson students generally….Firing someone because of their views is an abuse of power, an abuse, moreover, that promotes tribalism over competence and equality."

Mercer invited a response from Abes, which he promised to post alongside his letter on the SAFS website.

Abes's position, as enunciated in their telephone exchange, was that Bradley could write for newspapers like The PostMillennial, where his bias is welcome, but "the way I'm going to run mine is I'm not going to subject queer folks in our community to feel like they're going to be told their existence is sinful." When Bradley says to her, "I feel like guys are kowtowing to the outrage culture. That's just my opinion, at least," Abes responds, "Well that's something you can change when you run your own newsroom."

But as Mercer notes, the Eyeopener is "owned by the students themselves." All students are obliged to "purchase" a share in it. So in fact the Eyeopener is not, as Abes claims, "mine," nor is Bradley in a position to "run [his] own newsroom," making her retort both disingenuous and absurd. And since Bradley is a journalism student, and quite willing to confine his reportage to objective news stories that have nothing to do with belief systems of any kind, it seems doubly unfair that he should be denied a platform to hone his writing skills in anticipation of his future career, a perk that is offered to every other journalism student at Ryerson whose opinions find favour in this transient editor's eyes. The old Lord Acton dictum about power springs to mind. No, not the one everyone of my generation knows by heart about power and corruption, but this one: "Authority that does not exist for Liberty is not authority but force."

Furthermore, Abes made her decision on the basis of fruit from what appears to me to be a poisoned tree, as the lawyers say. Bradley's offending opinions would not have come to Abes's attention, but for the posting of accusations on Twitter that its own poster retracted at the first whiff of a defamation suit. It was not Bradley who created the condition for his statements to come to Abes's attention, but someone with apparent intent to do reputational harm to Bradley. It isn't as if Bradley subjected his colleagues at the Eyeopener to unsolicited sermons. It seems clear that Bradley has been cancelled on the basis of his enunciated religious beliefs, which were not meant for the public, but which were shared with an individual in the expectation of privacy, but then became public through no fault of his own.

For contrast and to point out the double standards at work in this case, we have Mariam Nouser a contributor to the Eyeopener, whose bio notes that in 2016 she came out in opposition to Holocaust Education Week at Ryerson unless it included the "Palestinian Holocaust," a trope that is so demonstrably and perniciously false and, yes, triggering to many Jews, me included—such a blood libel of Israel almost invariably being associated with stone-cold antisemitism—that I find my pulse rate up just writing the words. Nouser made her views known publicly and to all appearances proudly. Surely Abes was aware of them.

To be clear, I am not calling for Nouser to be fired. She has a right to her opinions, however bigoted and foul they appear to me. My indignation, after all, does not make me literally unsafe, only offended, and as we who support freedom of speech often say, there is no use upholding the principle of freedom of speech, unless one understands that such freedom includes the right to offend. I am simply using her as an example of Abes's apparent double standards regarding offences to minority groups with a history of persecution, depending on whether the alleged bigot has standing in the Intersectional Victim Index, in which case their expressions of bigotry are glided over in silence, or is a straight white male, in which case a "punching up" is permissible.

If Bradley is not fit to write on subjects other than his faith, or even mingle collegially with fellow writers, because of views he holds in keeping with his faith, then how is it that Amy Coney Barrett, newly appointed Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, who I am led to understand holds the exact same views as Jonathan Bradley, is considered fit to serve in this highest of legal offices, collaborating in decisions that will potentially affect hundreds of millions of citizens?

Are the students Abes is allegedly keeping safe from the allegedly menacing Bradley so much more in need of protection than all the people who serve at the Supreme Court, amongst them doubtless many in the queer community, perhaps even LGBT-identified law clerks who consider themselves privileged to work for Barrett?

Let us hope that the HRTO sees this matter in an objective light, and rules in Jonathan Bradley's favour.

Finally, it strikes me as a rather sad irony that the late, beloved, incomparable journalist Christie Blatchford, who was Canadian journalism's finest detector and denouncer of BS, was an alumna of the Eyeopener. Oh, what an embarrassment this episode would have been to her, and oh, what a column she might have written on it. Better and more memorable than this one, I say without a shred of false modesty.

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