Ontario Premier Doug Ford has recently released a directive to postsecondary institutions requiring free-speech policies to be designed, implemented, and enforced across all campuses before September 2019. The premier has threatened provincial funding cuts for institutions who fail to deliver.
Though Ford may be proving more and more to be the ‘Canadian Donald Trump’ as the days go by, especially after invoking the notwithstanding clause to override a judicial decision, he may have a point.
Over the recent year, right before the start of the spring election cycle, Ontario universities have sparked controversies in relation to the invitation of contentious guest speakers. For instance, Faith Goldy’s scheduled appearance as a speaker at Wilfrid Laurier University ultimately resulted in its president, Deborah MacLatchy, releasing a statement rejecting the values and ideas the speaker brought forward while reiterating the importance of freedom of expression after an outcry from campus students.
At the same university, a teaching assistant, Lindsay Sheppard showed a clip from TVOntario’s The Agenda, in which U of T Professor Jordan Peterson denounced the use of gender-neutral pronouns. This led to a disciplinary meeting with her superiors, which she secretly recorded.
At its best, Ford’s policy initiative upholds free speech without any repercussions. At its worst, the disarmament of the university administrators’ ability to restrict free speech, or allow for its restriction, is the price to pay in order to uphold the value of free speech on campuses.
Free speech is necessary because it ensures that our never- perfect ideas are always open to criticism. We are imperfect beings with imperfect knowledge. In order to improve ourselves and truly learn, we need to face what is unfamiliar.
Universities, as academic institutions, need to be extensions of the value of free speech. Professors and students alike need to be willing and able to accept a challenge to their own beliefs — and this mandate ensures just that. If done correctly, Ford’s mandate will make university a place open to even the most offensive ideas, exposing our values and education to the criticism and development they deserve and need. Only when we are willing to accept criticism can we be sure that we remain an institution of innovation.
There has been an increasing trend of news articles describing younger generations as overly sensitive and fragile. While this is likely a blatantly overgeneralized and uneducated view, the very fact that people are seeing younger generations in this light is something to be noted. It is difficult for businesses, policy makers, and the general public to take young people seriously if we allow this belief to float around as a result of videos and articles highlighting the reality that some young people on campuses do not want to listen to the views of others on the grounds that such views are offensive.
The only way we students can build trust with the rest of society is if we show that the university environment is about open and critical discussion-making instead of insecurity from views that might challenge ours. Our ideas and research should be based on discovery and reasoning — not blind groupthink.
When universities contest with anti-free speech forces, there are often grave consequences. On a small scale, we get the disruption that erupted at the Peterson rally by the Sidney Smith Building in 2016, leaving the student body angry and divided. History — through the 1970 Kent State protest, the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests — shows that an assault on free speech can be fatal for students.
So what do we do when this mandate comes into action? We discuss it, argue about it, and criticize it. Even this policy that promotes free speech deserves its fair share of criticism.
Indeed, Ford’s mandate may be imperfect in its integrity — including the question of who defines and enforces ‘good’ free speech policy. Despite certain imperfections, a free speech policy is not only beneficial — it’s necessary.
The policy’s imperfections are not grounds for trashing the policy entirely, but instead are grounds for improvements with the fundamental idea of free speech in mind. Ultimately, nothing comes before the freedom of expression.
Abeir Liton is a second-year Human Geography and Political Science student at St. Michael’s College.
Napas Thein is a second-year Public Policy and Political Science student at New College.