The Ford government held a roundtable with free speech clubs in August. DOUG FORD/CC FLICKR

The Ontario government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which gives students the option to opt out of certain incidental fees, was apparently suggested to the government by a campus free speech club, the concept having circulated for years within campus conservative communities.

In interviews with The Varsity, the University of Ottawa Students for Free Speech (uOSFS) Vice-President Michele Di Franco confirmed that the group had suggested the policy during a Free Speech Roundtable with the government on August 30, 2018.

Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities (TCU) Merrilee Fullerton attended the Free Speech Roundtable at Queen’s Park. The goal of the discussion was for the government to receive input from campus free speech groups to issue free speech guidance to universities.

Di Franco noted, however, that the “government seemed to be ambivalent about [the opt-out option], (at least when we spoke to them).”

The discussion resulted from a joint effort by the free speech clubs to reach out to the premier’s office, said Di Franco. The day following the hour-and-a-half roundtable, the Ford government adopted a mandatory policy for Ontario universities to implement free-speech policies based on the Chicago principles, a set of guiding principles on free speech adopted by the University of Chicago in 2014.

Di Franco explained that the desire to opt out of certain incidental fees stemmed from the uOSFS’s negative perception of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa. The student union made headlines last year over allegations of fraud that resulted in the university terminating ties with it.

Ministry of TCU comments on the consultation

In a written statement to The Varsity, the Ministry of TCU neither confirmed nor denied that the uOSFS’s recommendation played a role in the formation of the SCI.

“Minister Fullerton heard from many post-secondary students both during and after the election that the lack of choice and transparency in mandatory ancillary student fees was an issue of concern,” wrote TCU spokesperson Ciara Byrne.

“Many students have expressed concern either in person or via correspondence to the Minister regarding the high costs of mandatory fees for services that they do not utilize or want to support.”

The University of Toronto Students in Support of Free Speech wrote to The Varsity that the “Ontario government was very friendly and considerate and they kept an open and welcoming attitude to students’ group and concerns that have aligned with our free speech mission.” However, it declined to provide further comment on the discussion at the August roundtable.

The Varsity was unable to reach the Students for Free Speech York University group, the third student group present at the roundtable.

Opt-out option may also have originated internally from government, say U of T Campus Conservatives

In an interview with The Varsity, Matthew Campbell, President of the University of Toronto Campus Conservatives, said that his organization had not suggested the opt-out option for student union fees to the provincial government.

However, Campbell said that the idea of an opt-out option is not a new idea, as it has been a talking point for the past five to eight years among the “youth conservative activist base.” He added that the Campus Conservatives’ position is in support of the opt-out option, citing it as a move that lets “people say what they want their money going to,” and one that may increase transparency in student union spending.

Campbell also said that “student media probably should be in one of the mandatory fee brackets,” as it has increased the transparency of student union activities, citing The Eyeopener’s recent reporting on potential misspending by the Ryerson Students’ Union.

Editor’s note (February 25, 11:46 pm): Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article implied that multiple campus free speech groups apparently suggested an opt-out policy to the Ontario government — only the University of Ottawa Students for Free Speech club confirmed that it had done so.

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