In recent years, the issue of free speech on university campuses has become increasingly contentious. U of T became part of the national conversation on free speech when Professor Jordan Peterson made headlines in 2016, and since then, numerous other conflicts have unfolded on campuses across the country.

For example, consider white nationalist Faith Goldy’s failed speaking event at Wilfrid Laurier University last year, which was supposed to be hosted by the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry. Or last week’s case of the University of British Columbia’s Free Speech Club invitation to anti-immigrant speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern to speak, which was also cancelled.

The misapplication of free speech

Technically, free speech refers to the ability to speak freely without facing retribution from the state. But at universities, free speech groups misapply the concept as a test of campus tolerance for hateful views from controversial speakers they choose to invite, often under the guise of diversity of thought. However, when students or institutions refuse to tolerate their speech, it is not an action of the government — and therefore not a free speech issue.

Students oppose the presence of such figures on campus because their words reflect hatred toward marginalized communities. For example, Southern and Goldy have espoused the white genocide conspiracy theory, which argues that phenomena like mass immigration and racial integration are meant to lead to the extinction of white people, and Molyneux subscribes to “scientific racism” in the form of attributing differences in intelligence to race.

As white nationalist violence rises, the consequences of giving platforms to such speakers have become all too evident: speech leads to action. But in each case, the organizers take the protests against their events as vindication that free speech is under attack and that they are being silenced and censored. They neither realize nor acknowledge that their rhetoric may cross into hate speech. 

This dynamic has played out on campuses for years. But now, the groups that invite these figures to campus have the ear of Ontario’s premier, to the detriment of the rest of us students. A recent report by The Varsity shows just how central the issue is to the Progressive Conservative provincial government’s decisions.

Selective consultation

Last August, Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton attended a free speech roundtable with the University of Ottawa Students for Free Speech (uOSFS), the University of Toronto Students in Support of Free Speech, and Students for Free Speech York University. The next day, the Ford government threatened that universities would have to implement free speech policies or face funding cuts.

The far more consequential outcome of the roundtable wasn’t announced until months later in January. The Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which will allow students to opt out of some non-tuition fees deemed ‘inessential,’ was apparently suggested by the uOSFS at the August roundtable.

Instead of consulting student unions, who are elected to represent thousands of other students, Ford chose to selectively consult a small group of fringe students on policies that determine the future and survival of all other groups on campus.

Michael Bueckert, a graduate student at Carleton University, claimed that Ford only consulted alt-right students in an article he posted on Medium. Bueckert points out that uOSFS Vice President Finance Michele Di Franco appeared on a show hosted by alt-right leader Gavin McInnes. McInnes is the founder of the Proud Boys, a militant, neo-fascist organization. While Di Franco may not hold the same views as McInnes, his appearance on the show is troubling.

It is also extremely concerning that U of T members of Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) have defended the Proud Boys, even though SSFS claims to be non-partisan. When contacted by The Varsity, the SSFS did not say whether it felt the SCI would advance or retreat free speech, saying it is “irrelevant to the mission of [the] club.”

In an act of extreme irony, Di Franco is now suing Bueckert for what he claims are defamatory statements in the Medium post, as well as in a series of tweets made by Bueckert. Di Franco is asking for $150,000 in damages and a permanent injunction preventing Bueckert from disseminating defamatory material about him. If free speech groups choose to associate themselves with controversial figures, they should be open to criticism. Legal action not only curtails Bueckert’s free expression, but instils fear that forces others into silence.

Targeting the student voice

The University of Toronto Campus Conservatives President Matthew Campbell has said that an opt-out option has been a talking point for young conservatives for the last five to eight years. Louis Vart, who spoke with me on behalf of the group, says that students are best at managing their money, not the university.

Vart went further by adding that the policy will give transparency to student groups, which he feels they are lacking in at UTSG, mentioning the referendum to defund the Ontario Interest Research Group (OPIRG), a left-leaning research group, last year. A campus conservative group at Carleton has also pointed to defunding OPIRG as a reason to support the SCI. 

The apparent intention of the policy, to defund left-leaning campus groups and student unions, was made abundantly clear when Doug Ford referred to the “crazy marxist nonsense” students “get up to” in an email meant to solicit donations. As Bueckert writes, “it is evident that the real motivation for this policy is not to save students money, but to crush the conservatives’ political opponents.” But whether or not the conservatives like it, students have already decided that they value these organizations, as attempts to defund OPIRGs at multiple campuses in Ontario have failed.

While the policy is ostensibly about freedom and choice, in reality, students are left with fewer options than before. The actions of a few corrupt student leaders should not be reason to tear down the structure of student democracy entirely. Student unions give students a seat at the table, both within the university administration and at various levels of government. Similar to labour unions, everyone reaps the benefits of the advocacy that student unions do, so it only makes sense that everyone should pay into them.

Students should not be fooled. This policy is not an effort to expand our choice but an attempt to weaken our power. Without strong student unions, our ability to organize and voice our concerns to the Ontario government is completely undercut. When we understand free speech as having a voice without retribution from the state, then it is ironically the government’s opt-out initiative that undermines free speech.

All students lose

While the targets of the policy may be left-leaning groups and unions, the effects spill over to all student groups, eroding established campus life and community comprised of clubs, intramurals, and services such as food banks and crisis centres. Moreover, free speech is further put in jeopardy as student media in Ontario now face an existential threat. The future of campus publications like The Varsity, which give students a voice and promotes important dialogue and debate, remains uncertain under the policy.

An independent student press is necessary to ensure the accountability and transparency of other groups. While Ford has touted the Ryerson Student Union’s recent corruption scandal as evidence that students should be able to opt out of incidental fees, we shouldn’t forget that the story was broken by The Eyeopener, Ryerson University’s student paper, which also relies on a levy to exist.

Similarly, the uOSFS has pointed to allegations of fraud on the part of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) executives as a motivation for their support of the SCI, but, again, the original reporting that exposed the fraudulent practices came from student papers, The Fulcrum and La Rotonde.

Levies from all students are what give campus newspapers the freedom and ability to do this important reporting. Not only do they hold campus groups to account, they also keep the universities they are affiliated with in check. Universities which can, in the case of U of T, have billion dollar endowments and receive millions in taxpayer dollars.

The disguise of free speech

Defunding student groups in the name of free speech is clearly oxymoronic — but the premier is hardly the first person to try and change the political leanings of university campuses under the guise of free speech. For years, conservative groups have used the promotion of free speech as a guise to push their political agendas on university campuses.

Each year, the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) releases a Campus Freedom Index, where it issues letter grades to Canadian universities based on the policies and actions of their administrations and student unions. In 2018, it gave U of T a “B” on its policies and a “D” on its practices, citing mandatory anti-discrimination training for Human Resources & Equity staff following a list of supposed infractions.

If you look into the JCCF, you will find that the group is not purely concerned with free speech. Its chief concern is promoting socially conservative causes, including opposition to abortion. If there is an ideological war to claim university campuses, conservatives have clearly lost. Now, they pour dark money into causes to change that.
The truth is, conservative views, provided they are not hateful or inciting violence, are not silenced — they are simply unpopular on campus. For example, despite the fact that The Varsity has regular conservative contributions, conservative writers have asked for anonymity at The Varsity because they fear backlash against their views.

John Carpay, the President of the JCCF, is a member of the United Conservative Party, and in a recent legal filing, the group called high school gay-straight alliances “ideological sexual clubs.” Yet the lobby group postures as non-partisan, promoting its Campus Freedom Index in mainstream papers like National Post, all while claiming that free speech is currently under attack on university campuses.

Who is really under attack?

Facing these powerful outside forces attempting to change our campuses, what we need is a strong coalition of students advocating against the SCI across the province. If groups genuinely care about free speech, they will take a stance against this policy. The true attack on free speech is not coming from protest or backlash to controversial speakers, but rather from the provincial government attempting to silence political dissent by undermining student democracy.

We as students should be less preoccupied with inviting Rebel Media personalities to campus, and more worried about our ability to express ourselves, organize, and hold other groups accountable through the free press — all of which is actually under attack.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.