Sometimes, you can’t help but think that judges — and perhaps newspaper columnists — have a little too much time on their hands. Or else, that they have a little too much fun discussing finer points in the world that the rest of humanity might have little time for.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many megawatts of power can Muskrat Falls produce if Hydro-Quebec holds complete control of the water supply? How much booze does it take to make a higher education?
All interesting questions.
Take the July 25 court decision from the province’s court of appeal — three appeal court judges sat down to decide whether the Breezeway, a bar that operates at Memorial University, should have to pay property tax, or whether it was exempt, because it was part of a tax-exempt educational institution.
The short answer is that two of the judges felt the bar should pay the taxes. It is, they accepted, a business, rather than any sort of educational institution.
As the lead judge on the decision, Malcolm Rowe wrote: a “‘college or other institution affiliated with the university’ in s. 43 (of the University Act) means an educational institution, which the Students’ Union is not. As well, I agree with the Trial Division judge that the Breezeway is not a ‘recreational facility,’ nor does it operate for ‘public educational purposes …’”
And then there’s Judge Leo Barry.
Remember all those college nights you spent playing caps or beer pong?
Those lengthy philosophical discussions driven by too many Black Horse?
Well, that’s learning, according to Barry.
In the court decision that was under appeal, the judge had originally argued “Even on the requisite broad and purposive approach, a bar cannot be said to serve an educational purpose, even if drinking alcohol is a form of recreation for some students.”
But Judge Barry had a different view, writing, “University education involves more than ‘book learning.’ Discussion, debate and, yes, even argument with fellow students assist in fully understanding the societal significance of instruction provided in the classroom. While alcohol may not at all times promote rational analysis, the forum provided by a bar such as the Breezeway does encourage the social interaction helpful for a proper appreciation of the viewpoint of others on various issues. One need only point to the pubs of Oxford and Cambridge, the beer gardens of Heidelberg, the Mory’s Temple Bar of Yale and Domus Legis of Dalhousie (now Schulich) Law School, to find examples of bars which by encouraging such social interaction have contributed significantly to the education of university students.”
He went on to discuss the power of debate and discussion away from the classroom, and the essential role that even scholars place on social interaction between students and faculty, before concluding, “I believe the Breezeway bar, by promoting conversation and the exchange of ideas as a vehicle of understanding, serves a public educational purpose. It qualifies for exemption, therefore, on this basis under the Taxation Act.”
Years ago, at Acadia University, I was in a residence that collected beer bottles to buy the ingredients for a punch so vile that it broke down the Styrofoam cups it was served in: by the next morning, when you crossed the then-horribly sticky tiled rec room floor in the basement of the dorm, you could find legions of the cups with their sides bellied out, silent witnesses to the dangerous solvents involved with going on a tear.
Back then, I could have sworn I was damaging brain cells, not taking part in a process of improving them.
It certainly felt that way, even if the conversations were occasionally wildly involved and, in their own way, an education.
That being said, with all due respect to the other judges on the case, Judges Rowe and Welsh, I think it would have been far more fun to have been at university with Barry.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor.