In the wake of the provincial government’s announcement that all universities must have freedom of speech policies in place by January 1, The Varsity examined the state of such policies in Ontario. Out of the 21 publicly funded universities represented by the Council of Ontario Universities, only three have posted freedom of speech policies and six others have confirmed with The Varsity that they are currently taking steps to develop one. U of T is among the universities with an existing policy.
The remaining 12 universities have no confirmed plans to develop the required policies nor do they have a publicly posted freedom of speech policy.
According to Premier Doug Ford’s government, these policies must contain a definition of freedom of speech, principles of free expression, disciplinary measures for actions contrary to the policy, and mechanisms for complaints and compliance.
Failure to comply with the provincial mandate, both in the development and enforcement of the policy, may lead to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities reducing the institution’s operating grant. In addition to the development of free speech policies, student unions and governments are required to abide by these policies and are also encouraged to develop their own guidelines on freedom of expression.
U of T, McMaster University, and Wilfrid Laurier University are the only publicly assisted universities in Ontario that currently have freedom of speech policies that would theoretically conform to the mandate of the provincial government.
U of T has the oldest policy in the province, released in May 1992 under the title “Statement on Freedom of Expression.” It was established by Governing Council and acts as the university’s policy on freedom of speech.
This was reaffirmed by President Meric Gertler in September, following the Ontario government’s announcement.
“These are the principles that guide the advancement of knowledge and enable academic excellence,” said Gertler in a press release.
The U of T policy is not as fully-formed as the other universities’ ones; it serves mainly as a guideline without fully establishing the principles of free expression that are required by the provincial government.
Published in June, McMaster’s policy is outlined in the “Guidance for Event Organizers and Participants,” which was developed in collaboration with its Ad Hoc Committee on Protest and Freedom of Expression as well as the McMaster community. The policy is much more detailed about the specific elements of protest and free speech, including outlining examples of “acceptable protest and dissent.” Within the policy, roles and responsibilities are defined for audience members, organizers, and facilitators. The policy also includes a specific section to define the “Promotion of Dialogue,” which specifically addresses the inclusion of opposing viewpoints and dialogue within the context of controversial material.
After a censorship controversy in November last year, the Senate of Wilfrid Laurier University published its “Statement of Freedom of Expression” in May.
The document lays out the idea of “inclusive freedom,” which defines the role of marginalized communities and actively assures “that all members – including those who could be marginalized, silenced, or excluded from full participation – have an opportunity to meaningfully engage in free expression, enquiry, and learning.” Unlike U of T and McMaster, the statement defines the role of marginalized communities within the context of the free speech policy, encouraging active opposition through an “educational and intellectual approach.”
The University of Ottawa, the University of Windsor, Carleton University, Trent University, Nipissing University, and the University of Waterloo all confirmed with The Varsity that various degrees of progress have been made toward developing a free speech policy.
Windsor and Nipissing have both formed committees to develop policies that would abide by the mandate set forth by the provincial government.
Ottawa, Carleton, and Waterloo all endorsed a general statement by the Council of Ontario Universities that welcomes “further discussion” with the Ontario government to “balance the right to free expression with universities’ duty to maintain a civil campus environment.”
Trent confirmed that a draft is being circulated within its community. All six universities mentioned above have also committed to consultations with their provincial counterparts and cooperation with the government.
No confirmed plans
Queen’s University, University of Western Ontario, Ryerson University, Algoma University, and York University all either echo or directly endorse the statement by the Council of Ontario Universities, but have no publicly posted information on their free speech policies. They have confirmed with The Varsity that they will take action to meet the Ontario government’s mandate.
All universities have committed to meeting the deadlines set by the provincial government and pledge a thorough commitment to freedom of expression and speech.
In statements to The Varsity, a main concern of all the universities above was ensuring the maintenance of the universities’ policies on civil discourse, physical safety, and security — as well as finding a balance between freedom of expression and an inclusive environment.
Western’s Director of Media and Community Relations added in his statement to The Varsity, “We need that framework to balance the right to freely express with Western’s duty to offer a civil and inclusive campus environment, along with considerations for the safety and security of our campus community.”
The University of Guelph, Lakehead University, the Ontario College of Art and Design University, Royal Military College, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Brock University, and Laurentian University did not respond to requests for comment.