On August 30, Premier Doug Ford delivered on his campaign promise to prioritize ‘freedom of speech’ on university and college campuses. A statement issued by the provincial government indicated that Ontario schools that receive any amount of provincial funding are required, by January 1, 2019, to develop and implement policies that would foster freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas both on campuses and within student groups.
If compliance is discovered to be insufficient, schools could face funding cuts. On an individual level, the government also recommends that students who present themselves as barriers to freedom of speech should be subject to campus disciplinary measures.
The idea of a government compelling freedom through threats and coercion indisputably contains a certain irony. There is also an eerie hypocrisy about Ford suddenly heralding himself as the defender of freedom of speech, being that one of Ford’s first actions upon taking office was to require that school teachers teaching sex ed , essentially omitting any information dealing with gender identity, sexual orientation, or consent.
A casual reader might be confused about Ford’s seeming oscillation on the concept of the free and open exchange of ideas. However, any person who has some insight on what freedom of speech means in a modern Canadian context will be less flummoxed.
Ford’s enactment of this policy follows a trajectory which can be traced back to the University of Toronto in late 2016. The issue of free speech became contentious shortly after a series of vindictive public pronouncements were uploaded to YouTube by .
In some of them, the professor adamantly and furiously denigrates the racial sensitivity training that he and his colleagues were required to undergo. In others, he angrily refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as they and them, on the grounds that he does not desire to be recruited into transgender ‘ideology.’
The uproar over free speech that followed was not aimed at Peterson’s concerningly public targeting of soon-to-be-protected marginalized groups, but instead was directed at various parties of students, trans people, and Black activists who expressed concern and anger over the professor’s statements.
The connection between Peterson and the free speech policy goes deeper. Just before it was announced, the two men publicly met at at Ford’s home and discussed the issue of free speech on campuses. It seems that Peterson, frustrated at the reactions to his public speeches, discerned a potent way to bar the expressions of those who disagree with him.
So rests the self-defeating foundation underlying this distorted iteration of freedom of speech: that one should be free to flout whatever speech one wants. And no matter how dangerous, harmful, or cruel the ideas contained within, any reactions are wholly unwarranted and should be discredited — preferably with legal measures, says the Ford government.
If, hypothetically, free speech were to be truly admired and respected, the freedom to respond, protest, or otherwise react to others’ ideas would be given equal priority. There can be no legitimate freedom of expression without the freedom to express criticism. The current idea of free speech seems to subsist with narrow focus and intent: to allow social conservatives to express controversial opinions without consequence.
Unsurprisingly, this idea is quickly discarded when the controversy is from the other side of the political spectrum, or when the disparaging is directed from the disenfranchised to the privileged. We can turn to the example of Palestinian-Egyptian-American Randa Jarrar, a Professor at California State University, Fresno, who came under fire this spring for her tweet about recently-deceased Barbara Bush: “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”
Calls for her removal from her position at the university quickly followed en masse, and the university was quick to state that her words were “beyond free speech.” Outrage from the crowd that had ferociously defended Peterson was mysteriously absent.
Perhaps this selective outrage is not so mysterious when one places the current uproar about free speech within the trend of a movement deemed by its supporters as anti-political correctness. In today’s political climate, it is for the most part no longer appropriate to openly and unapologetically say disparaging things about marginalized groups.
The federal government has taken legal measures to attempt to deter persons or institutions who might discriminate or compel violence against disenfranchised groups. For instance, Bill C-16 added gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, while Motion 103 calls for the development of approaches to reducing systemic discrimination against Muslims in Canada.
The increasing inappropriateness of publicly proclaiming ones’ hatred or distrust of marginalized groups requires that these reactions go underground — disguising themselves in clever cloaks. One of these cloaks targets political correctness, which asserts that the increased impropriety of speaking disparagingly about marginalized groups is itself oppressive and in opposition to the principles of freedom. This is the factory wherein the disguise of ‘free speech’ is manufactured.
It is a clever ploy: when the anti-political correctness brigade frames their argument as fighting for freedom, it is difficult to disagree with them without being attacked as a person who opposes freedom. Ford’s motion will likely go unchallenged for these reasons. On the surface, the discourse of fostering academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas seems unequivocally good, and a thing that should be unanimously desired by all Ontarians. Only by reading the fine print and placing the motion within the current political climate do its true intentions surface.
Campuses in Ontario stand to lose autonomy when they are required to be ideologically aligned with the state. And as with Ford’s infamous sex ed snitch line, the methods of policing that come with this bill are ambiguous. That the institution of the state would intervene and decide what kinds of discourses are appropriate and inappropriate on campus is contrary, not conducive, to the freedom of expression.
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College.