Ontario colleges and universities must come up with free speech policies or face funding cuts, the Progressive Conservative government said Thursday, delivering on a promise Premier Doug Ford made during the spring election.
The schools have until Jan. 1, 2019 to develop, implement and comply with the policies, which experts said were aimed at pleasing a segment of the Tory base that was outraged when some speakers and professors came under fire for their conservative views.
The Tory government said the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario would monitor compliance starting in September 2019 and schools that don’t comply could face funding cuts. Students who contravene the policies would be subject to existing campus discipline measures.
“Colleges and universities should be places where students exchange different ideas and opinions in open and respectful debate,” Ford said in statement. “Our government made a commitment to the people of Ontario to protect free speech on campuses.”
Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said free speech on campus has become a far-right issue by virtue of the fact that most of the controversies have involved people with conservative views.
“The politics behind this and the motivations of the premier are quite clear,” he said. “This plays well with a certain segment of his base.”
Several Canadian campuses have seen incidents in which controversial speakers or professors have come under fire for their views. One of the most publicized was that of Lindsay Shepherd, a Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant who was chastised for airing a clip featuring professor Jordan Peterson, who has refused to use gender-neutral pronouns and has become a hero of the free speech movement.
Laurier said it has already taken steps that align with the direction outlined by the government.
Laurier has invested considerable time and resources to fully research best practices, said Robert Gordon, Laurier’s vice-president academic and provost.
“We would be happy to share our learnings with the Ontario government and other universities,” Gordon said.
The government said all university and college policies must include a definition of freedom of speech and adhere to principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression. That document says colleges and university are places for open and free discussion, institutions should not shield students from ideas they disagree with or find offensive, and university or college community members cannot obstruct the freedom of others to share their views.
Under those same principles, speech that violates the law is not allowed.
Macfarlane said the University of Chicago statement is “strong and clear” and Ontario schools should adopt it. But he says the policy likely wasn’t necessary since there have only been a small number of these controversies in Ontario in recent years.
He said it’s also not clear what the province will do if the policy is put to the test.
“I’m not clear what happens if say 10 to 20 students disrupt a speaking event,” he said. “Is the outcome there that the entire university community is punished with cuts to its operating grant?”
Chris Glover, the NDP colleges and universities critic, said the official Opposition will be watching the policy development process.
“Ontarians are concerned that Doug Ford’s decree regarding so-called ‘free speech’ rules on campus may parallel the American version of the campus free-speech movement, which opens the door for groups to spew hate on the campuses of post-secondary institutions,” he said in a statement. “We want to ensure that campuses are safe, welcoming spaces for all – including those who are women, racialized individuals, and those who are LGBTQ2.”
Daniel Woolf, Chair of the Council of Ontario Universities, said the schools will work with the government to help develop the policies but that universities already have dispute resolution mechanisms in place to deal with free speech issues.
“Every day, on every university campus in the province, hundreds if not thousands of conversations and debates take place; facts and opinions are expressed that some participants may not like, or even find offensive,” Woolf said in a statement. “Ontario universities have policies that affirm the right to freedom of expression for students, faculty and staff, and have.”
Danny Chang, president of Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, said that group will work to ensure students have a voice during the creation of the free speech policies across the province.
“Our priority is ensuring that students are part of the conversation when it comes to implementing this policy,” he said. “Moving forward, we are committed to ensuring that the university experience for students is not impacted by any potential changes to grant funding.”