Ontario post-secondary schools expected to now have free-speech policies in place

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to the media during a press conference after visiting the new Amazon office in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO – Ontario’s post-secondary institutions are now expected to have free-speech policies in place under a controversial provincial rule that officially came into effect this year.

The governing Progressive Conservatives announced last summer that all publicly funded colleges and universities would have until Jan. 1 to develop and implement a free speech policy “that meets a minimum standard prescribed by the government.”

The government said that institutions will have to report on their progress each year starting in September and any that fail to comply with the free-speech requirements could face a cut in funding.

“Starting this year, we have made it mandatory for Ontario universities and colleges to have a policy to protect free speech,” Premier Doug Ford said on Twitter over the weekend.

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“I’ve heard from many students who believe our campuses need to be a place for respectful and open dialogue, without fear of attacks or discrimination.”

Ciara Byrne, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, said the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario will be assessing each institution’s policy this month and advising the ministry as to whether they meet the minimum standard.

Ontario’s colleges adopted a universal free-speech policy late last year, and a spokesman for Colleges Ontario said the organization is confident the document will help ensure freedom of speech is promoted and upheld on campuses.

The province’s 22 universities, meanwhile, have opted to each come up with their own policy.

Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said Monday its policy was approved mid-December after the school sought input from stakeholders and the public. It said the policy, which also upholds the right to engage in peaceful protest about the content of the free expression of others, took effect immediately.

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Several universities state in their policies that while they will not shield students from unpopular or offensive views, they reserve the right to intervene when speech violates the law or unduly interferes with the institution’s operations.

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“The university is not able to cancel a speaker or event on the basis that the ideas or opinions expressed are unpopular or offensive,” Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., notes in a primer on its policy.

However, “the freedom to engage in expression does not extend to expression that impedes or interferes with the proper operation of the university – for example, completely blocking an entrance or hallway in a way which prevents students or employees from their studies or work,” it adds.

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Ottawa’s Carleton University also said its community can engage in peaceful demonstrations and make use of school facilities but stressed the institution “must be able to operate free from unreasonable interference from any person or group” and therefore may regulate the time, place and manner of speech.

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The university said a draft of the policy was drawn up by a task force composed of faculty and students and presented for community feedback before it was passed by the school senate in late November.

A spokeswoman for Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., said a task force identified existing documents that formed the core of its policy. The policy was later discussed by the school’s senate and approved by the board of governors last month.

“While recognizing and respecting every individual’s right to freedom of expression, Laurentian University has an obligation to manage a university-related event or activity where it is reasonably believed there is a risk of injury or that it may violate applicable law,” the policy reads.

The University of Toronto said it has had policies on freedom of speech and related issues for more than two decades and has not drafted a new one as a result of the province’s decision.

A number of labour and academic groups have raised concerns about the government’s directive, however, saying it will stifle rather than promote free speech. They argue the decision was pushed through with little, if any, consultation and will undermine institutional autonomy.

“This is an ideological fiction advanced by the government to justify interference in the academic governance and autonomy of Ontario’s universities and colleges,” the groups, which include the Canadian Federation of Students, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said in a statement when the rule was announced.

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“These policies will actually limit the rights of faculty, staff, and students to express themselves and jeopardize the quality of student education and research,” they said, adding staff, students and faculty may be discouraged from speaking up out of fear of being disciplined.

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