SUMAYYAH AJEM/THE VARSITY

The provincial government has mandated that all universities in Ontario draft a policy on freedom of speech by January 1, 2019. This follows Premier Doug Ford’s campaign promise that he would “ensure publicly funded universities defend free speech for everybody.”

In a press statement released on August 30, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities announced that every publicly-assisted college and university will have to develop and publicly post a policy that includes a definition of freedom of speech and principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression, developed in 2014.

Free speech policy

According to the government, the policy must apply to faculty, students, staff, and management alike and uphold principles of open discussion and free inquiry.

The policy should also explain that “the university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.”

“Speech that violates the law is not allowed,” according to the press release.

For student groups, failure to comply with the policy in the future could mean a severance of financial support or recognition.

The release also states that schools should “encourage student unions to adopt policies that align with the free speech policy.”

In order to ensure that universities are following through, all schools must prepare annual progress reports for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, beginning in September 2019.

“If institutions fail to comply with government requirements to introduce and report on free speech policies, or if they fail to follow their own policies once implemented, the ministry may respond with reductions to their operating grant funding, proportional to the severity of non-compliance,” according to the press release.

U of T has had a free speech policy in place since 1992. SCREENSHOT VIA FREESPEECH.UTORONTO.CA

U of T’s response

U of T has had policies on freedom of speech in place since 1992. Titled the Statement of Institutional Purpose and the Statement on Freedom of Speech, they state that freedom of speech means “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large.”

The 26-year-old policy also states that “every member should be able to work, live, teach and learn in a University free from discrimination and harassment.”

In a press release from U of T, President Meric Gertler said, “Our principles have served us well and must continue to guide our practices. It’s important that members of our community understand the university’s policies on how we address these issues.”

“We have a responsibility as a university community to ensure that debates and discussions take place in an environment of mutual respect, and free of hate speech, physical violence or other actions that may violate the laws of the land,” he added.

In response to the Ford government’s announcement, U of T club Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) told The Varsity that it is “happy to see the Ontario Government making a commitment to the cause of free speech in Ontario universities and colleges.”

SSFS is a club that fights for the rights of students in regards to freedom of expression. It has hosted some controversial events in the past, including a rally in support of the Halifax ‘Proud Boys’ in July 2017.

“We remain cautiously optimistic as we await the full policy, and look forward to the work of Minister [of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee] Fullerton,” said the SSFS. “We hope this policy ensures the rights of students to express themselves freely while maintaining a respectful environment free from harassment and discrimination.”

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