Ontario’s Colleges Embrace Free Speech, Or Do They?

Posted December 19, 2018
By James L Turk

Unlike universities, Ontario’s colleges have resisted making explicit commitments to academic freedom for academic staff and to affirming the foundational importance of freedom of expression for the work of the college.

It took last year’s five-week strike by Ontario college faculty and an arbitrator’s decisionto force the colleges to accept protection for academic freedom in the collective agreement. Now the colleges have adopted a policy on freedom of expression following the August 30thorderby the Ontario Premier that all post-secondary institutions put such a policy in place by January 1, 2019.

On its face, the Premier’s order seemed odd as Doug Ford has a record of trying to censorexpression he doesn’t like, and as freedom of expression is already better protected on university campuses than anywhere else in Canada. As I have written elsewhere, Ford’s order is best understood as a political ploy, borrowed from the Republicans in the United States, to use campus free speech as a wedge issue to mobilize his political base.

Nevertheless, some had hoped one good thing would result from his order – that colleges would finally acknowledge, for the first time, that freedom of expression is the foundation for education and for the advancement of knowledge and that expressive freedom would be valued and protected on college campuses.

On first blush, that seems to be what has happened -- but only if you do not read the colleges’ statement closely. 

The new colleges’ statement on freedom of expression, as mandated by Ford’s order, claimsto be “based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression.” The University of Chicago statementis virtually identical to that of most universities in North America. 

Its core elements are three. 

The first principle is a statement of an unwavering commitment to free expression. That means several things: (1) debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the institution’s community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed; (2) it is for individual members of the community, not for the institution, to make judgments for themselves; (3) acting on their judgments, members of the community should deal with expression they oppose not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting such ideas; and, finally, (4) the institution has an obligation to foster the ability of members of its community to engage in debate and deliberation as part of its educational mission.

The second principle is that the institution recognizes and embraces non-disruptive protest as a legitimate part of free expression, and as such supports the rights of all members of the University community to engage in such protest.  

The third principle is that limiting the rights of others to engage in free expression is not acceptable. As University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer explained, “Preventing others from speaking and listening is arrogating to oneself the right of free expression, but denying it to others.”  

The colleges’ statement begins well:

“Colleges must be places that allow for open discussion and free inquiry where diverse voices can be heard and ideas and viewpoints can be explored and discussed freely and debated openly without fear of reprisal, even if these are considered to be controversial or conflict with the views of some members of the college community.”

It goes on to say:

“…it is not the role of colleges to shield members of the college community from ideas and opinions that they may find disagreeable or offensive.  It is up to individuals and not colleges to make such judgments for themselves and to debate and challenge ideas that they find unacceptable.”

So far so good. 

But when it comes to the right to protest, the statement is less than robust. While it says that “Members of the college community are free to criticize and contest the views of others”, it omits the language from the Chicago statement that an essential part of the institution’s educational mission is “fostering the ability of members of the…community to engage in…debate and deliberation…”

The colleges’ statement does mirror Chicago (and most other university statements) by saying that free expression does not include illegal speech, harassment, violence and threats of violence or hate speech. 

It also recognizes (as does Chicago and most others) that the colleges “may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of freedom of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt normal college operations and ordinary college activities or endanger the safety of others.”

But colleges betray their lack of a serious commitment to free expression when they fail to add the next sentence from the Chicago statement: 

“But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.”

Without the vital affirmation that these are “narrow exceptions” and will “never be used in a manner…inconsistent with the…commitment to a complete free and open discussion of ideas”, the colleges’ assertion of the right to “reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of freedom of expression” is a license to run roughshod over faculty and student free expression rights. 

It is important to note that the statement was drafted by a taskforce of 12 college administrators and one student. Faculty were totally excluded from the drafting and approval of the statement.

Free expression is not strengthened by diktats from the Premier nor statements drafted by the administration. Its strength lies in community recognition of free expression’s foundational importance and in community discussion and debate about the legitimate boundaries of free expression. It is time for that discussion to begin in colleges and for a genuine community policy statement to emerge – replacing the inadequate and imposed statement announced this week.