Ontario Premier Doug Ford has carried through with his promise to require universities to develop, implement, and comply with free speech policies that meet his government’s minimum standard in the next 120 days or face the possibility of a reduction in their operating grant funding. Normally you would expect the director of a centre for free expression and an outspoken critic of universities when they occasionally fail to protect free speech to applaud the government imposing this policy. I cannot.
The new policy overrides the institutional autonomy that provides a bulwark for real free speech and academic freedom on campus. For centuries it has been recognized that freedom to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular viewpoints, question conventional wisdom — in short to do what is essential to advance knowledge — requires that universities have a significant measure of autonomy from the thin skins and political infatuations of politicians and governments.
The Ford government policy is based on the false premise that freedom of expression is endangered at Canadian universities. It is not. Despite occasional lapses (more about those later), 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. Universities cannot fulfill their missions of creating knowledge and educating students without robust 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. There is more freedom of expression on university campuses than anywhere else in Canada.
Much of the public understands this. As a result, it is big news whenever the principle of free speech appears to have been compromised at a university – big news precisely because it is such an exception to the pervasive respect for free expression in universities. I, along with many others, work to help ensure it is big news because, left unchecked, failure to protect free expression on campus destroys the foundation of the university. The widespread media coverage of outcry, coupled with the higher education community’s and the public’s general commitment to free expression, provide the real protection of that foundation.
The newly announced Ford government policy is not about saving free expression on campus, as campus free expression is alive and well. Rather, the policy is a deliberate political measure, borrowed from the American right and alt-right, to play to what the Premier sees as his political base.
The new Ford policy channels Donald Trump who, in response to the controversy over alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous at the University of California at Berkeley in February 2017, famously tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Trump’s notion was elaborated shortly afterwards by the National Review in an article saying to Congress, "It's time to crush campus censorship" and subsequently formalized by the Goldwater Institute into a model bill designed to impose free expression rules in United States public university systems.
Seeing advantage in this use of campus free speech as a wedge issue, Andrew Scheer brought the idea to Canada during the federal Conservative Party leadership contest in May 2017. Following the American right’s script, Scheer declared, “I will withhold federal funding from universities that shut down debate and can't stand different points of view." The UK Conservative party’s higher education minister, Jo Johnson (Boris’ brother), picked up the refrain, declaring last December that universities failing to protect free expression could be fined.
This works as a wedge issue by bringing together two very different constituencies. On the one hand, there are those on the alt-right and those sympathetic to their viewpoint who have chosen to weaponize free expression — going relentlessly and aggressively to the outer boundaries of speech and vilifying those who express concerns by casting them as hypocrites. Think of the denigration of students who are concerned about racist or Islamophobic or homophobic speech as “snowflakes.” In a recent New Yorker article, Jill Lepore notes that the guide of those weaponizing free speech “isn’t the First Amendment; it’s the hunger of the troll, eager to feast on the remains of liberalism.” How better to do that than to use the rhetoric of liberalism to attack one of the principal repositories of liberal, Enlightenment values — the university.
The other constituency drawn in are those who genuinely care about free expression but have come to believe, from the high-profile stories of universities’ occasional lapses, that free expression is endangered at universities. The policy aims to unite these two very different groups against an unspecified university and university-educated “elite” that betrays its own liberal values.
Far from entrenching free expression on university campuses, the Ford government policy undermines it. Free expression is not strengthened by diktats. Its strength lies in community recognition of free expression’s foundational importance to the university and society, and in community discussion and debate about the legitimate boundaries of free expression. While we need to challenge every lapse, we also cannot lose sight of the bigger reality that free expression rights are the norm within the university. We must speak out against policies such as Ford’s, and proposals such as Scheer’s, that undermine university autonomy, misrepresent the reality of free speech rights on campus, make more difficult the necessary community discussions about proper limits to free speech, and build the constituency of the alt-right whose real goal is the destruction of liberal values on which the university is based.