Alberta government will require annual ‘free speech reporting’ from post-secondary schools

Click to play video: 'Alberta government will require annual ‘free speech reporting’ from post-secondary schools'
Alberta government will require annual ‘free speech reporting’ from post-secondary schools
The Alberta government says will better protect freedom of expression on campus. This comes 48 hours after the University of Lethbridge took away a lecture space from a controversial academic. as Morgan Black reports, professors and students say the province's new requirements bother them – Feb 3, 2023

The Alberta government will require post-secondary schools to provide “annual free speech reporting” to the minister of advanced education, the province announced in a news release Friday.

The government said the annual reporting will supplement a previous requirement that all 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions in Alberta “either endorse the Chicago Principles on free expression or develop a policy that is consistent with the principles.”

According to the UCP government, with regard to the previous requirement, “all institutions complied and implemented their policies by the minister’s deadline of Dec. 15, 2019, with an exception made for Burman University and the institution’s religious values.”

Advanced Education Minister Demetrois Nicolaides told Global News the new requirement is not being introduced in response to a particular incident, but is part of a continued conversation about free speech on campuses.

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He said the report card element is still being developed.

“We have those policies in place already and I think it’s important to provide that kind of annual audit and check and explore whether or not the policies are being followed, is there anything that needs to be changed in the policies and how are institutions doing in terms of adhering the policies.”

Exactly what the annual reporting will entail is still being developed alongside university and college presidents, administrative leaders and other stakeholders, Nicolaides said.

“I don’t want to develop a report card and then impose it on our universities and colleges. So what I’m committed to is sitting down with all our university and college presidents and administrative leaders and other stakeholders to talk about what this report card should look like, what kind of information should be reported (and) how that info should be represented to the public.”

The main goal is accountability and transparency, he explained.

“The key objective is to make sure the info is made publicly available and reported to Albertans… and so the ministry, as well, can evaluate how individual institutions are doing with respect to adhering to the policies they’ve developed.”

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In the news release, the United Conservative government said “Albertans are grateful for their right to express themselves freely and Alberta’s government wants to ensure that freedom is made stronger.”

“The voices of all Albertans deserve to be heard and respected,” the government added. “That is why Alberta’s government is working to further protect free speech and academic freedom on post-secondary campuses.

“Post-secondary institutions will have to report annually to the government on their efforts to protect free speech on campus.”

Click to play video: 'U of L cancels controversial lecture Frances Widdowson, speaker still presenting on campus'
U of L cancels controversial lecture Frances Widdowson, speaker still presenting on campus

The announcement comes after the University of Lethbridge rescinded space on campus for a controversial former Mount Royal University professor to speak.

Frances Widdowson was fired from MRU in 2021. She was invited by a professor to speak on the University of Lethbridge’s campus this week about her concerns that a mob mentality and “woke policies” increasingly threaten academic freedom.

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About 2,500 students signed a petition pushing back on the university for hosting the speech.

Click to play video: 'Hundreds of protesters drown out controversial speaker Frances Widdowson at University of Lethbridge'
Hundreds of protesters drown out controversial speaker Frances Widdowson at University of Lethbridge

Widdowson still went to the U of L’s U Hall atrium Thursday and was met by protesting students, staff, faculty and members of the community. She tried to move locations but ended up leaving about half an hour later.

Widdowson has sparked some controversy in recent years, making headlines with her comments about residential schools.

It was confirmed last year she was fired from MRU in Calgary for allegations of workplace harassment and intimidation. Her case is in arbitration and MRU told Global News that the case remains confidential.

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She was fired amid controversy over comments she made lauding the educational benefits of Canada’s residential school system while questioning whether abuses at the schools against Indigenous children equated to “cultural genocide,” as described in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

“I’ve never denied the harm of the residential schools,” she told The Canadian Press this week.

“People are distorting what I’m saying about it. My issue is residential schools were not genocidal. (They) were a misguided effort which often had serious problems.”

Click to play video: 'UBC threatened with legal action unless the cancellation of a speaking event is reversed.'
UBC threatened with legal action unless the cancellation of a speaking event is reversed.

“It is abundantly clear that more needs to be done to ensure our institutions are adequately protecting free speech,” Nicolaides said in Friday’s news release.

“Alberta’s post-secondary institutions should be bastions of free speech and academic freedom that promote critical thinking. I will continue to explore greater steps we can take to strengthen free speech on campus.”

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The University of Lethbridge said it will work with the Alberta government “to learn more about annual reporting requirements and develop plans for implementation.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the school said: “the University of Lethbridge’s mandate affirms its commitment to protect free inquiry and scholarship, facilitate access to scholarly resources, and support artistic expression and free and open scholarly discussion of issues.”

“We were quite disappointed to hear about this announcement initially because we feel the government is actually politizing a non-existent issue,” said Nicole Schmidt, students’ union president at the University of Calgary.

“We were also surprised in light of the fact that the government, just last week, was patting themselves on the back for reducing the amount of red tape that institutions in Alberta have to deal with… (and) they are now imposing more red tape in the form of free speech reporting for these institutions.”

Schmidt said this is not an issue the SU has heard raised by students.

“We feel very strongly that there are more important and more critical affordability issues, such as the increasing cost of living and tuition that students are facing, that should take precedence.”

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In a statement, the University of Calgary said it has a strong commitment to protecting freedom of speech and supporting academic freedom.

“This commitment is reflected in the robust Statement on Free Expression UCalgary’s Free Expression Committee developed in 2019.

“We have not yet seen what measurements or additional expectations the Alberta government might have in mind. We anticipate learning more about the government’s proposals in the coming days.”

A spokesperson for the University of Alberta said it was aware of the announcement and is waiting for further information.

“The University of Alberta actively fosters an inclusive culture committed to the expression of, exposure to, and debate of diverse points of view. The U of A’s full Statement on Freedom of Expression can be found here.”



Click to play video: 'Laurentian University professor suspended over explicit content document'
Laurentian University professor suspended over explicit content document

— With a file from The Canadian Press

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