Exclusive: Ontario colleges’ new ‘free speech’ policy

New free speech policy for Ontario colleges criticized by student and faculty organizations for lack of consultation

On Jan. 1, 2019 colleges across Ontario, including George Brown College (GBC), will implement a new free speech policy. 

The policy states that colleges must allow for open conversations without the fear of reprisal, even if  others find their viewpoints offensive.

The policy states that members of the college community are free to criticize and contest the views of others but they can’t obstruct or interfere with anyone’s freedom of expression.

Although the policy prohibits “speech that violates the law,” including the Ontario Human Rights Code, it also states that “it is not the role of the colleges to shield members of the college community from ideas and opinions that they may find disagreeable or offensive,” and that it is up to individuals to challenge ideas they find unacceptable.

The policy also states that “colleges may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of freedom of expression to ensure it does not disrupt normal college operations” or endanger the safety of others. 

GBC president Anne Sado said Cory Ross, GBC’s vice president of academic, will be holding town hall meetings in January to explain the policy to academic staff who will be most impacted by the policy in their classrooms.

“I don’t think that what’s reflected in the policy right now is very different than the approaches and operational processes that we have already,” said Sado, who noted that the college would have to develop a complaint system. 

“It’s extremely important for us to create very inclusive environments that also deal with very difficult topics.” said RM Kennedy the division chair of the union representing college faculty. “Every single day faculty are walking into classrooms trying to find a way to balance that and nothing from Colleges Ontario is going to change the fact that it’s our professional responsibility.”

A copy of the province-wide free speech policy was presented at the George Brown Board of Governors meeting on Dec. 12.

A copy of the free speech policy developed by Colleges Ontario was presented at the George Brown College board of governors meeting on Dec. 12.

The policy also states that official student groups must comply with the policy as a condition for ongoing financial support and recognition. 

“We will be reviewing this policy and meeting with the senior administration of GBC to ensure that this policy does in fact protect students and isn’t used in a way contrary to its purpose,” said Arnel Fleurant, director of education for the Student Association of George Brown College (SA), in an emailed statement. “We are concerned about how this policy will be used on campus.” 

Sado said she knows that the SA does a lot of events in their own space that aren’t managed by the college.  

“I think we’ll have a good conversation with the SA executive and make sure that we’re on the same wavelength,” she said.  

The only student representation in drafting the policy was a student from the College Student Alliance (CSA). A spokesperson from the CSA declined to comment for this story. 

The Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario (CFS-O), who represent over 350,000 students—including at GBC, were not asked to participate in drafting the policy.

“They just want to push their agenda and it doesn’t matter what people think about it,” said CFS-O chairperson Nour Alideeb who said she hopes that the policy will be used to police hate groups and not clamp down on student activism.

The policy was created due to the Ontario government’s directive for all publicly-funded universities and colleges to develop and implement a free speech policy by Jan. 1 2019.

With files from Leslie Gallagher.

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Exclusive: Ontario colleges’ new ‘free speech’ policy