As part of the Ontario government’s 2018 directive that all colleges and universities must develop and report on free speech guidelines, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) released its first annual report on November 4 regarding the state of free speech on campuses. It revealed that U of T did not have to make any alterations to its freedom of speech policy in order to comply with governmental regulations.
Background on the policy
Doug Ford unveiled his free speech policy requirements in August 2018, stating that institutions found to be non-compliant with the government’s free speech requirements are at risk of losing funding.
The policy is based on the Chicago principles for free expression, which were outlined in a 2014 document from the University of Chicago that summarizes its commitments to freedom of expression.
The HEQCO was tasked with monitoring the implementation of this directive, which falls under its mandate to evaluate the postsecondary education system in Ontario.
The state of free speech at U of T
In U of T’s “Annual Freedom of Speech Report” — which each university and college is now required to produce as part of Ford’s policy — U of T highlighted two cornerstone free speech documents that were passed in 1992, as well as a number of expansions to the policy framework over the years.
Universities were also required to note any free speech issues or complaints in their reports. U of T highlighted an event held in March 2019 at UTM where the controversial scholar, Norman Finkelstein, spoke about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Finkelstein’s lecture, which primarily argued against the right of Israeli guards in Gaza to self-defence, faced criticism and calls for cancellation both from within the university and the public.
In addition, U of T was the only institution to cancel an event during the January to August reporting period, when a space booking by the Canada Nationalist Party (CNP) was denied due to security concerns. In its report, U of T noted that CNP Leader Travis Patron had come under RCMP investigation for a hate crime earlier this year. Patron was also recently charged with assault and aggravated assault in Regina on November 2, where two women alleged that Patron attacked them after they refused his offer of a ride.
The HEQCO report identified one issue in regard to compliance with the Chicago principles in Ontario. The report notes that a central feature of the Chicago principles is that free speech “takes precedence over civility and respect.” This section of the Chicago principles was not explicitly stated in the Ford government’s minimum requirements, but the HEQCO asserts that it is not evident in all of Ontario’s postsecondary institution’s free speech policies.
“Universities in general and U of T in particular have been pretty vigorous in defending free speech on campus… universities were doing perfectly well protecting free speech before [the Ford government initiative] came along,” said Wayne Sumner, University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy, to The Varsity in an interview.
Sumner believes free speech initiatives are the result of “overblown” fears that right-wing speakers are being targeted on campus. However, Sumner does not believe any harm has come from this initiative, saying, “The Chicago principles are the right framework for freedom of speech on campus.”
A Globe and Mail article quoted James Turk, the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, who went further, saying, “This was all part of Ford playing to a right-wing base, suggesting that the elites in these liberal institutions need to be reined in so they respect freedom of expression.”
In an email to The Varsity, Ciara Byrne, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities wrote that “postsecondary institutions across the province are already seeing an improvement in the upholding of free speech,” despite the policy being in place for less than a year. Byrne emphasized that while the government wishes to uphold free speech, hate speech will not be tolerated.