In high-profile cases across Canada and the US, individuals who expressed pro-Palestinian stances on social media have faced repercussions such as being fired and suspended, sometimes because their employers have alleged their statements perpetuated antisemitism.
U of T’s policies prioritize free speech with limits to maintain a respectful environment. Canadian law protects free speech, but some speech can still impact individuals’ job security. The Varsity broke down some of U of T’s and Canada’s policies and laws governing what speech is protected and where people may face repercussions for speech.
Free speech rules at U of T
According to U of T’s Statement of Institutional Purpose and Statement on Freedom of Speech, two key aspects underscore the university’s approach to free expression: the acknowledgment that free speech “can be uncomfortable” and the recognition that free expression depends on an environment of “tolerance and mutual respect.”
U of T emphasizes that it does not allow speech threatening violence. According to the Statement on Freedom of Speech, U of T may intervene if a member of the university uses speech that directly attacks others if it prevents others from exercising their free speech rights or if it “[interferes] with the conduct of authorized University business.”
The statement advises individuals to avoid using language that belittles individuals based on their group characteristics, such as their race and sexual orientation, but states that there may be instances where the need to safeguard lawful free speech precedes “values of mutual respect and civility.” The Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment states that the university “aspires to achieve an appropriate balance between” the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom from harassment and discrimination. As such, U of T does not have a comprehensive code of conduct defining what community members can and cannot say.
The Code of Student Conduct states that U of T must allow peaceful protests and cannot “inhibit freedom of speech as defined in the University.” However, individuals must comply with the applicable laws of Canada and Ontario.
According to U of T’s 2022 Free Speech Report, U of T students with free speech concerns can reach out to different offices depending on the nature of their concerns. Students can contact the Office of the Vice-Provost if they’re concerned about events hosted by autonomous student groups. Concerns about statements from faculty in an academic or public setting fall under the purview of the Division of the Vice-President & Provost. In cases of discrimination and harassment, students can schedule a meeting with a member of the equity offices to discuss options for resolution, which can include filing a formal complaint or discussing the issue with the accused person directly.
Alums and benefactors can address concerns related to free speech to the Division of University Advancement, which is designed to handle fundraising and alumni engagement. Community members can address governance-related concerns through the Office of the Governing Council.
U of T only received one formal free speech complaint — which can either ask U of T to limit speech or to expand it — during the 2021–2022 school year. The Association of Palestinian Students (APS) brought forth a complaint with specific concerns regarding a non-curricular lecture on antisemitism. The lecture was scheduled to be delivered by a guest speaker who the APS claimed had made “offensive” statements in the past.
The group called on the university to postpone the scheduled event and find an alternative speaker given the speaker’s past statements. The university invited the complainants to speak with the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office and ultimately decided to proceed with the event as planned, citing a commitment to upholding the principles of free expression.
Protected speech under Canadian law
In Canada, Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms constitutionally protects freedom of expression, granting individuals the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
The Constitution allows individuals to express opinions and criticize the government without legal reprisal. However, the Criminal Code restricts hate speech, prohibiting public incitement of hatred based on characteristics such as race or religion.
In addition to these provisions, defamation laws prohibit people from making false statements that may harm someone else’s reputation. Obscenity laws prohibit the possession, production, distribution, or sale of obscene materials — meaning materials primarily about sex paired with horror, cruelty, or violence — including photos, videos, or “written matter.”
Free speech in the workplace
In Canada, the relationship between voicing a political opinion and job security isn’t straightforward. The Charter ensures that speech is free from governmental interference, but this protection doesn’t extend uniformly to private, non-governmental employers. In the workplace, these entities often establish their own guidelines and repercussions.
Adding to the complexity, Canadian employers hold the legal right to terminate employees without cause. This means that individuals may face dismissal for expressing a controversial opinion and might not have prior knowledge or warning about it. However, a firing may be unlawful if influenced by features protected by Ontario’s Human Rights Code, such as race and ethnicity.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, anyone who experiences racial harassment in their workplace can also file a formal complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.