New Ontario Campus Free Speech Policy: A Step In The Right Direction

September 2018

The Ontario government announced on August 30, 2018, that taxpayer-funded colleges and universities must henceforth create and enforce policies to protect free speech on campus. While imperfect, the plan is a welcome response to the deafening silence of all provincial governments, of all stripes, about the censorship crisis on campus.

When was the last time that a provincial Minister of Advanced Education even complained (never mind doing something) about the abysmal state of free expression at public universities? When last did a government official explain that freedom of expression does not include a right to disrupt, obstruct or interfere with the right of other people to express their opinions?

It is a huge step forward for Ontario to require that universities incorporate into their own policies the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression. Universities must now state expressly, in their own policies, that they are a place for open discussion and free inquiry, and that they have no obligation to shield students from ideas or opinions that students disagree with or find offensive. The government now requires universities to discipline students who obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views. Each Ontario university must also prepare an annual report on its own progress in complying with its free speech policy, and submit it to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). Best of all, the government has declared that a university’s failure to introduce and comply with free speech policies may result in funding cuts, proportional to the severity of non-compliance.

Premier Doug Ford and Merrilee Fullerton (Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities) should be congratulated for making history, and encouraged to see this project through to completion.

Premier Ford and Minister Fullerton also need to address the problem of security fees being used as a tool to censor controversial speech on campus, at Wilfrid Laurier University and elsewhere. Such incidents are becoming more common place, and typically play out as follows: (1) a right-of-centre or “conservative” person is invited to speak or debate on campus; (2) left-wing groups declare that the invited speaker is “racist”, “hateful” or “homophobic” and therefore not entitled to speak at all; (3) feminists, LGBTQ, Antifa and/or other groups threaten violent or physically disruptive protests; (4) the university slaps event organizers with a large invoice (for example, $17,500 at the University of Alberta) for “security costs” that students can’t afford to pay; (5) the event is cancelled. In some cases, as at Ryerson University in August, 2017, the university simply cancels the event as soon as it learns of “protests”, without bothering to try to extort money from innocent students.

The solution to security fee censorship is obvious and just: send the security costs invoice to those who threaten to violate the university’s rules against the physical obstruction, disruption, and those who silence opinions they disagree with. How is it fair to invoice those who seek only to exercise their legal and democratic right to express their opinions peacefully on campus? Universities can and should impose financial penalties for disruption of peaceful expression on campus, and place liens on academic transcripts to be released only upon payment. It is unfortunate that such steps have become necessary, but universities across Canada have failed to require students to respect other students’ rights.

In addition to preventing universities from using security fees to censor speech, Ontario’s new policy should also clarify the ban on “hate speech, discrimination and other illegal forms of speech.” It’s one thing for universities to uphold and enforce the narrow and specific Criminal Code prohibitions on promoting hatred. It’s quite another for universities to ban or restrict broad swaths of speech just because they are denounced as “hateful” by the likes of Antifa and other “social justice warriors.” Likewise, Premier Ford and Minister Fullerton need to define “discrimination” clearly and carefully, such that this term cannot be used to silence the expression of unpopular, controversial or politically incorrect ideas on campus.

Last but not least, concrete steps must be taken to defend free speech from student unions, which typically do more than university administrations. For example, student unions must be stopped from banning student clubs from campus solely because they advocate for controversial or unpopular opinions.

The Ontario government has its work cut out for it, and has also made a pioneering start on that work.