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Policy & Practice

The Ford government is ignoring its own campus free speech policy

By calling on student groups to withdraw certain controversial statements, the minister of colleges and universities is demonstrating that the policy was and is a hollow gesture.

BY CRESO SÁ | NOV 28 2023

To no one’s surprise, Premier Doug Ford’s government has made it abundantly clear it was never committed to the principle of free speech.

Back in 2018, the Ford government ostentatiously introduced a campus free speech policy, positioning itself as a defender of open and vigorous debate at colleges and universities. Institutions were required to develop and publish free speech policies by Jan. 1, 2019. The policy “must apply to faculty, students, staff, management and guests,” the government stated, and – at a minimum – must be based on the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression. This included the principles that “Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry;” that “The university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive;” and that, “While members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views.”

Furthermore, the government’s policy had a special dispensation regarding student groups. It stipulated that such groups must comply with the policy “as condition for ongoing financial support or recognition,” and that institutions should “encourage student unions to adopt policies that align with the free speech policy.”

At the time, it was obvious that the policy was based on a false premise and represented little more than political theatre on the part of the Ontario premier. Time showed these assessments were correct. Over the last two years (2021 and 2022), no campus events have been cancelled as a result of concerns over safety and security, and a grand total of six complaints have been reported in the whole province, all of which resolved internally.

Since the Israel-Hamas war started in October 2023, Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s minister of colleges and universities, has very publicly not only ignored the campus free speech policy of her own government, but compelled university administrators to act in ways diametrically opposed to it. In response to a statement issued by three student organizations at York University, she called on the student unions to “apologize and rescind their statement,” and the administration to “hold these groups accountable for their actions.” She went on to post her statement on her X account:

Moreover, the minister went on to publicly denounce the York students’ unions and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) at the legislature. Besides requesting the withdrawal of the statements by the student groups, she called upon both universities “to investigate and, if necessary, bring non-academic misconduct reviews regarding the actions of the executives of both respective unions for their statements.” The minister went on to name all of the students involved in crafting the organizations’ statements, as well as three professors for their public comments related to the Israel-Hamas war. Again, she posted a clip of her remarks on X:

Being vigilant about the principles of free speech – such as the ones advocated by the Ontario government’s policy – is not necessary when discourse is agreeable. On the contrary, it becomes essential when people hold opposing perspectives, and disagree on the fundamentals of hard debates. It is precisely when we find others’ views objectionable and reprehensible, albeit still lawful, that we put genuine commitments to “open discussion” to the test.

The Ford government’s campus free speech policy was always a hollow gesture — an insincere nod to conservative voters rather than a principled commitment to fostering open discourse. It fit a political narrative of universities being dominated by liberal and left-wing ideologies and being inimical to conservative views, which has provided ample opportunity for political posturing among conservatives in Canada, following their U.S. counterparts. Blatantly, the government’s own actions undermine the very values they claim to uphold when they see fit. But again, it is not the first time that this government has done a 180. The question is, will voters care enough about campus free speech to call them on it?

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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