On August 30th, the Progressive Conservative provincial government announced that publicly funded Ontario colleges and universities would be required to establish free speech policies or face funding cuts. The announcement fulfills an election promise made by Premier Doug Ford during the provincial election last spring.
In a news release published on the provincial government’s website, the announcement stated that the free speech policy “must include a definition of freedom of speech” and “adhere to principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression.”
Moreover, the news release reasserted that colleges and universities are “places for open and free discussion,” adding that “institutions should not shield students from ideas they disagree with or find offensive, and university or college community members cannot obstruct the freedom of others to share their views.”
Under those same principles, speech that violates the law is also prohibited according to the announcement. This includes inciting violence or advocating genocide.
Failure on the part of institutions to comply with these standards may result in “reductions to operating grant funding, proportional to the severity of non-compliance.” Students who act out of accordance with the policies would be subject to existing campus discipline measures.
Adwet Sharma, social director of the UTM Campus Conservatives, said that the provincial government’s announcement was an important step in maintaining open and nonpartisan discussion on issues across UTM.
“If anything, by definition, this legislation will allow us to openly discuss the issue of free speech itself,” he said. “It is sufficient to say that the political discourse on university campuses has become increasingly leftist. Any, if not all, messengers of the right find it extremely hard to be allowed to host events on campus, and those which aren’t immediately shut down are protested against, often violently.”
Sharma added that the issue with political discourse on campus is not that it is “left wing or right wing,” but rather that it is “radical”.
“That is the key issue that the provincial government aims to tackle with this legislation.”
The Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) stated in a CBC interview that the funding cuts for failure to comply were “an unprecedented overstep.” When asked about the UTM Campus Conservatives’ view of the Ford government’s funding cut proposal, Sharma advocated that the budget slashes were simply in keeping with upholding fundamental human rights for students across Ontario.
“Freedom of expression and, thus, free speech is a human right as declared by the United Nations. If a university were to deny its students education and food, would a funding cut be ‘an unprecedented overstep’?”
In an email correspondence with The Medium following the announcement, UTM Principal and VP of the University of Toronto, Ulrich Krull, stated that the university’s response to the announcement was still preliminary.
“It is early days yet with the announcement,” he said. “University of Toronto as one institution with three campuses will be acting on the directive.”
On September 5th, the University of Toronto media relations team released a news story detailing the school’s commitment to free speech. University of Toronto President Meric Gertler defended the institution’s history of advocacy for respectful, conducive dialogue.
“We have a responsibility as a university community to ensure that debates and discussions take place in an environment of mutual respect, and free of hate speech, physical violence or other actions that may violate the laws of the land,” President Gertler was quoted as saying. “We must all do our part to preserve and strengthen the conditions that support our ideals.”
A 1992 document adopted by the Governing Council of the University of Toronto outlines the institution’s position on free speech.
“Of necessity, there are limits to the right of free speech, for example, when members of the University use speech as a direct attack that has the effect of preventing the lawful exercise of speech by members or invited guests, or interfering with the conduct of authorized University business, the University may intervene.” The document further explains “the University’s primary obligation is to protect the free speech of all involved.”
Post-secondary institutions affected by the provincial government’s announcement have until January 1st, 2019 to develop and implement the policies. Effective in September 2019, institutions must submit annual reports on implementation and compliance progress to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, which will report directly to the Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities. The reports will be made available online.
President of the UTMSU Felipe Negata did not respond to The Medium’s request for comment as of press time.
A complete detail of the University of Toronto’s existing policies and statements on free speech can be found on the university’s website.