Government requires free speech policy at Ontario colleges

CFS, NDP concerned that free speech policy can pave the way for hate speech and violence

The recently elected Progressive Conservative government is forcing the hands of publicly funded universities and colleges across Ontario in the implementation of a free speech policy on campus.

According to the statement released by Premier Doug Ford’s office, this policy is to be developed and enforced by Jan. 1, 2019 in keeping with provincially prescribed standards, said to be international best practices.

The policy, which affects students, faculty, staff, management and guests, must at minimum, include a definition of freedom of speech and have its basis set on principles laid out by the University of Chicago Statement on Free Expression:

  • Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry.
  • The university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.
  • While members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views.
  • Speech that violates the law is not allowed.

However, the directive also states that failure to abide by the deadline can result in punitive actions such as reduction of funding to the institutions.

Following the announcement on Aug. 30, the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS) responded, lashing out at the Ford administration for “threatening” and “attacking” universities and colleges with this directive.

“We feel like this is a really dangerous precedent moving forward,” said Nour Alideeb, Chairperson of CFS-Ontario. “This freedom of speech policy isn’t really what it seems to be. The freedom of speech concept has been corrupted to protect individuals who have really bigoted views.”

“Now that we’re promoting freedom of speech but under the guides of also protecting hate speech, we’re going to see a lot more violence on campus and that’s not good,” she added.

Alideeb noted there are currently procedures in place at public institutions to address freedom of speech and that the implementation of such a policy can prove to be counterproductive.

“Even though the announcement says that unlawful speech won’t be permitted, there is actually a power imbalance and it makes it really difficult for people to stand up against hate speech,” she explained.

The CFS-Ontario Chairperson questioned the ultimatum which forces the institutions to take on this new approach, saying, “If an institution doesn’t follow through on this freedom of speech policy, they’ll take away funding but if there is hate speech on campus, what’s the province going to do about that?”

Meanwhile, Adrienne Galway, special advisor to the president of George Brown College (GBC), indicated that at this point, the school has more questions than answers with regards to the government’s call for the implementation of a free speech policy.

However, with existing student codes and academic freedom guidelines in place, she noted that this policy may not result in significant changes at GBC.

“I think it’s going to enshrine the principles that we live by anyway. We are a campus that encourages open and free speech and free debates and if we have to write it down in a policy, we don’t believe it’s going to be any different from how we have been operating up to this point,” she said.

Galway indicated that Colleges Ontario is taking the lead in crafting a collective approach to be executed by all institutions within their jurisdiction.

On the other hand, CFS-Ontario intends on partnering with affiliated organizations to call for a retraction of this policy.

NDP Colleges and Universities critic, Chris Glover also spoke out against the government’s decision to forcefully implement a free speech policy saying, “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.”

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Government requires free speech policy at Ontario colleges