Chapter Four: Law and Education

4.14 Democratic Practice in Schools

The Charter guarantees Canadians the right to elect governments. Whether students in schools have such a right has not been argued before the courts. One might think that learning in practical terms about political processes would be an important part of what secondary schools teach. Yet student councils in most Canadian secondary schools are heavily restricted and monitored by school administrators.

Canadian schools have had wide latitude in the past to limit students’ rights to express themselves freely and to assemble freely. For example, schools have frequently limited students’ right to publish their opinions in school newspapers, to organize political activities in the school, to circulate or read certain kinds of materials, or to dress in ways that make particular kinds of statements. The Charter has forced schools to be more careful about how and when they limit students’ ability to speak, write and dress for expression, even though there have not been a large number of cases on these matters.

Issues of order illustrate most clearly the dilemma posed by the schools’ educational mission. It is hard to see how an institution can inculcate in young people respect for the law and for the rights of others, as well as an understanding of democratic processes, when these same principles are not embodied in the actual operation of the school. If students are treated arbitrarily, subjected to rules they neither support nor understand, and denied avenues for the peaceful expression of their opinions, then surely there is something educationally wrong. There is, of course, a need to keep order in schools, but one must wonder if the educational rationale cited here does not justify greater openness to diverse behaviour and points of view than is found in many schools. Are students’ dress, hair length, or written opinions (provided they are not libellous) so prejudicial to the effective conduct of education that they justify restricting students in ways that would not occur outside the school?