Ford government releases annual report on freedom of speech on campus

U of T continued with existing policies, highlighted two on-campus events that spurred free speech debate

Ford government releases annual report on freedom of speech on campus

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.

Losing our autonomy is not in line with free speech absolutism

Re: “The Explainer: How Ford’s free speech policy mandate will affect student groups”

Losing our autonomy is not in line with free speech absolutism

Ontario universities receive a great deal of funding from the government of Ontario. Unfortunately for Doug Ford, however, that does not then require those universities to extol the ideologies of that government. That is, in fact, the antithesis to the purpose that universities exist to serve.

Furthermore, it is contrary to the traditional values of the conservative right for a government to impose itself on the activities of public institutions and the public in general. The flag-bearer of free speech himself, Jordan Peterson, is lauded by advocates of absolute freedom of speech for reeling against what he has termed “compelled speech.”

By creating a mandate which threatens to revoke funding for student groups which do not consistently abide by the terms of the new free speech policy, Ford’s government is about to implement, in essence, exactly the sort of compelled speech mandate which its Petersonian supporters so emphatically condemn.

There should be no reason that a place of learning and the pursuit of societal betterment should be forced to accept speakers whom they deem to be undermining this aim, or to give these individuals a platform that legitimizes such claims as if they were acceptable or reasonable.

This applies twofold to student associations, which can be places of refuge for students to come together under a collective set of principles or beliefs, and it is unclear as to what extent the provincial government will enforce the new policy.

Student groups at Wilfrid Laurier University recently used the screen of free speech to justify an invitation to white nationalist Faith Goldy. Will a Jewish Students’ Association, for example, be reprimanded for disallowing the flow of opinions if they do not allow a Holocaust denier into its gatherings? It would certainly be inspiring if the University of Toronto Campus Conservatives invited a member of the NDP Socialist Caucus U of T Club to speak at their meetings, and vice versa.

The Ford government has no business, however, forcing this or similar scenarios to occur under threat of defunding.

Anna Osterberg is a first-year Master of Teaching student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.