Opinion: Ontario Free Speech Mandate A Win, and Not Just for ‘Reactionaries’

As announced August 30 by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, publicly assisted Ontario post-secondary schools will soon be required to implement a policy that meets his administration’s standards.

These include:

  • A definition of free speech
  • Principles borrowed from the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression
  • That existing disciplinary measures apply to students who act in violation of the policy
  • Schools consider official student organizations’ compliance with the policy mandatory for funding and recognition
  • Schools use existing mechanisms to handle complaints and compliance issues

The deadline for these measures to be put in place is January 1 of 2019.

A second provision under the same mandate is that publicly funded institutions also must report annually on implementation and compliance of their free speech policy annually. This report must be published online and submitted to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), which reports to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

At the recommendation of HEQCO, the ministry may revoke or reduce operating grant funds to schools found not to have implemented, reported, or followed their policy. The reduction of funds will be “proportional to the severity of non-compliance.”

The Chicago Statement establishes that “University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

This same idea was restated by Doug Ford on May 8 of 2018. Vice News reported Ford saying, “Universities are supposed to be a place where we exchange ideas and have respectful and responsible debate.” Ford is fulfilling his commitment to university free speech, but is not without his critics, even amongst the proponents of free expression.

James Turk, professor and Director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University was quoted speaking against the mandate in an article by the Globe and Mail. He claimed that the action was “an unprecedented abuse of university autonomy” and he was concerned about the ramifications of barring universities from recognizing student organizations that refuse to abide, stating “that would seem to me to be a direct violation of the notions of free expression.”

“What if there’s a student group that was highly critical of the policy? Should they not have the right to exist and voice their criticism of it?”

Turk’s argument seems to be based off — at best– a misunderstanding, or — at worst — a deliberate mischaracterization of the mandate. Students are not prevented from speaking. That is the point of the policy.

Compliance, not support, is the condition of funding. As long as a student group does not violate the policy, their stance on said policy will not affect their ability to receive funds.

As stated in a the provincial government’s press release, “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.”

Subsequently, a student organization would be “free to criticize and contest” the policy so long as they don’t violate the university’s policy by obstructing the freedom of others.

To answer Turk’s question, if there was a student group that was highly critical of the policy, they have every right to exist and voice criticism of it, as guaranteed by the policy.

Furthermore, one year to date before the mandate’s release, Turk himself wrote an article published in Maclean’s where he expressed concern at the call for “suppression of free speech.” It should come as no surprise that Turk is concerned for free speech, given that he is Director of the Centre for Free Expression, but what is surprising is his criticism of Ford’s mandate.

In his piece, Turk criticizes Ryerson for cancelling a controversial panel at the university and even claimed that the action violated Ryerson’s policy.

The university, however, was free to violate this policy without direct course of action for complaints. The provincial government invested nearly $5 million in Ryerson in 2016, yet it was unable to intervene to protect free speech.

Had the mandate been in place in 2017 when Ryerson was considering cancelling its panels, the university would have either been compelled to follow its policy, thus allowing for debate, or the ministry would have been able to reduce funding. Putting funds at stake not only serves as an incentive for schools to allow conversation, but prevents taxpayer funds from going to institutions that would silence their expression.

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