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The politics of free speech

The politics of free speech

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In August 2018, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government did something no other government in Canada has ever done: it mandated “free speech” at the province’s public universities and colleges. The media release from “Ontario’s Government for the People” trumpeted Premier Doug Ford’s vision: “Colleges and universities should be places where students exchange different ideas and opinions in open and respectful debate,” said Ford. “Our government made a commitment to the people of Ontario to protect free speech on campuses. Promise made, promise kept.”

Institutions have until January 1, 2019 “to develop, implement and comply with a free speech policy that meets a minimum standard prescribed by the government” with progress to be monitored by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Universities and colleges failing to comply “may be subject to a reduction in operating grant funding.”

CAUT issued a statement condemning the “unprecedented interference with institutional autonomy,” calling it “a solution in search of a problem.”

The right to “free expression” already extends to everyone in Canada — you don’t even have to be a Canadian citizen — and is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As well, the vast majority of universities and colleges across the country have policies in place around free speech, along with student codes of conduct, to ensure healthy debate.

A single province suddenly intervening to “save” free speech, but only where deemed needed, officially drew only silence from Universities Canada, which represents the interests of Canadian universities. The Council of Ontario Universities issued an artfully tactful response.

“For centuries, universities have encouraged the free flow of ideas on campuses. Universities have always been places for open discussion and free inquiry. This has not changed,” states the COU news release. “We welcome further discussion with the government on how freedom of expression may continue to be protected.”

Exactly “how freedom of expression may continue to be protected” is a legitimate question woven into COU’s response, and one among many being asked by people who actually work or study within university settings.

“The Ford government policy is based on the false premise that freedom of expression is endangered at Canadian universities. It is not,” states James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

As Turk notes, “Universities, along with the conventional media and public libraries, are the principal advocates for, and defenders of, freedom of expression in our society. The university’s raison d’être is premised on free expression. This general freedom of expression is bolstered, almost universally in Canadian universities, by contractual guarantees for academic freedom that ensure academic staff have free expression rights in their teaching, research, and more broadly, including the right to criticize the university itself and its administration publicly — an action that would lead to discipline, if not termination, in most other workplaces.”

He points to Ford’s actions as pure political posturing. “It’s not about saving free expression on campus, it’s a deliberate political measure, borrowed from the American right and alt-right, to play to what the Premier sees as his political base.”

Turk isn’t alone in questioning Ford’s motives. “The gap between the theatrics of Progressive Conservative’s embrace of campus free speech and reality is wide,” states Creso Sá, director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the University of Toronto.

“Most with a working knowledge of higher education would agree that we are nowhere near a free speech crisis in colleges and universities, let alone one justifying government intervention — and we would think that the bar for the nanny state to step in would be higher for a PC government,” Sá notes wryly in an opinion column printed by Universities Canada in its flagship publication, University Affairs.

Political pandering to a base is one thing, but Turk connects the dots further, to that of Ford “channeling” US President Donald Trump who tweeted in early 2017 that he’d slash funding to universities that didn’t “allow” free speech. Canadian federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer quickly seized on the notion as a wedge issue during his leadership campaign in spring 2017, stating: “I will withhold federal funding from universities that shut down debate and can’t stand different points of view.”

That message obviously struck a chord with Ford, who campaigned on a similar promise, all in order to “protect free speech.” Turk notes that the government’s new policy also requires that institutions develop a definition of free speech including “principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression.”

The reference to one particular American university is not random. “There’s been a historic embrace by the American right of the University of Chicago, and so Ford is now insisting on that for no particular, good reason,” Turk says, adding that while the Chicago definition is “fine,” there are equally good definitions in place already at many Canadian universities.

That being the case, some Ontario universities are not modifying their already existing policies, while others are hustling to meet the deadline for compliance.

Alison Hearn, an associate professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, volunteered to be part of the ad hoc committee at Western addressing the required policy. She agrees the claim that free speech is under attack is a “false narrative.” “I wanted to make sure that the issues of equity and diversity and the impacts of speech on marginalized communities were included in the policy, and to encourage the university community to be mindful of the impact of their words.”

Hearn is concerned that a “middle line” is being neglected in the polarized discussions about free speech. “We are at a moment where it’s incumbent on us to acknowledge how intimately connected free speech is with questions of diversity and equity. The right wants to divide them and says you can’t have free speech and also have equity and diversity, or social justice warriors will be out there trying to shut free speech down,” she says.

“But these things are not separate. You can’t have one without the other. Free speech has to be absolute but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have impacts. Universities have to say that they’re equally committed to both, because you need that diversity in scholarship to keep the university living and growing and innovating, so it’s a circle of reinforcement.”

Yet the “false narrative” continues to trickle down. Within months of Scheer’s successful bid for party leadership, Turning Point Canada — an offshoot of the US libertarian campus group Turning Point USA — arrived in the initial form of a student club at Simon Fraser University. Co-founded by the former president of Wilfrid Laurier Campus Conservatives, Charlie Beldman, Turning Point Canada has no website, instead directing readers of its social media feeds — consisting largely of memes illustrating ideals such as #BigGovSucks — to its American counterpart, TPUSA.com.

Beldman, who was an intern in Scheer’s office at the time of TPCAN’s formation, is now an advisor in the office of the leader of the official opposition. Meanwhile, a second campus club has been formed at McMaster University under the guidance of student Blake Hambly, who also ran as a school trustee candidate in recent Ontario municipal elections.

Turning Point McMaster’s stated purpose is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government, promoting the values championed by Turning Point USA, and assisting in elections and political and social activity to benefit the Turning Point movement.”

Hambly disagrees that free speech is alive and well on Canadian campuses, pointing to a handful of incidents in Ontario including protests that shut down admittedly controversial speakers such as Faith Goldy, and University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

Turk says such disruptions are few and far between. “It becomes big news precisely because it’s so unusual. People don’t hear about the thousands of speakers on campuses every month, the thousands of classes every day, where there’s vibrant discussion and no problems,” he says.

But Hambly intimates that freedom of expression may also be suppressed in classrooms, and approves of the “professor watchlist” invented and maintained by TPUSA. “Help us expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” the TPUSA website encourages on its “submit a tip” page.

“It’s merely a list of professors or courses not to enrol in. People talk about good profs/bad profs at every university, and this just happens to be a physical list that you can see … I don’t think it’s out of the typical, it’s not a form of censorship, it’s a recommendation or a warning sign for students,” Hambly says. “If you’re trying to go for a 4.0 and not get harassed on campus, maybe stay away from this or that prof who doesn’t agree with what you stand for.”

Details such as salary, location where they teach and the reason why targeted professors offend TPUSA are revealed on the list, including lecturers concerned about legislation allowing students to be armed on campus, and researchers who point out lack of diversity. While such a site hasn’t yet been established in Canada and Hambly “couldn’t say” if one ever would be, CAUT president James Compton says CAUT would “step up forcefully” to oppose such a list as “an attack on academic freedom.”

But “we don’t have a problem with controversial speakers,” says Compton. “Universities are places where that should be allowed to happen.”

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