In August of this year, the Ford administration announced that Ontario universities and colleges will have four months to implement policies that defend free speech on campus, or else they will face funding cuts. As this deadline quickly approaches, many are left wondering what variations will be seen across the board, or if there should be variations at all. The guidelines put forth by the Ford administration have been vague, mostly targeted at allowing controversial speakers to express their views on campus, but other than that it seems the administration is leaving room for universities to come up with their own interpretations of the policy.
So, should all university students face the same free speech policies, or should they be tailored to each university?
University free speech policies should be universal
Like moths to a flame, activists of all stripes are drawn to the issue of free speech on postsecondary campuses with special fervour. While this is expected given the radical nature of rights issues, it is also easy to forget the more practical question that these debates eventually raise—namely, what would campus free speech policy even look like?
Whereas the government’s expectations would seem to allow for some flexibility among campuses, a better way forward would be the adoption of clear, universal standards across the province.
It all comes down to comparing apples to apples. Despite obvious and welcome variation—size, program selection, or student demographics, to name a few areas—Ontario’s 24 colleges and 21 universities all operate within the same model. As publicly assisted post-secondary institutions, they receive significant funding (on average 42 per cent for universities) from the federal and provincial governments, who also decide which schools are accredited to grant degrees. Thus we see broad consistency at the core of Ontario campuses, from administrative processes to student associations.
The importance of consistency is rooted in everyday considerations. Several uncontrollable factors may determine a student’s choice of post-secondary institution: family income, place of residency, and desired program, just to name a few. However, Ontario’s model allows students to attend whatever school they can (or want to) and always expect high-quality instruction. There is simply no reason that a fundamental rights issue like freedom of expression should be held to any lesser degree of standardization.
Whatever the specific substance of free speech policy, it will undoubtedly shape aspects of student experience.
For example, the protection or prohibition of certain perspectives by free speech policy may determine which guest speakers can hold events on campus. Dramatic variation among schools’ policies could result in either more or less exposure to these events, depending on which school a student attends. Alternatively, consistent guidelines for guest speakers will ensure individual schools do not become labelled by apparent political tendencies. In other words, for the sake of diversity and safety on campus, consistent policy is an important safeguard.
Implementing province-wide free speech standards also makes sense from a purely pragmatic standpoint. While the government has officially left it to individual schools to develop their policies, it nonetheless outlines minimum criteria, such as not actively shielding students from ideas, and not allowing groups on campus to disrupt controversial events. It would be far easier for institutions and government to come to an agreement on how these delicate criteria should be interpreted.
Seeing as the government has delegated the monitoring of free speech policies to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, it will have the final say, either way. So, colleges and universities, from boards of governors to student bodies, would be better off taking sensible, collective action while they still can—because come January, it may be out of their hands.
Universities should be able to develop their own individual policy
To put it plainly, the government has no business interfering with free speech policies on campus.
To begin with, it is worth acknowledging that free speech policies themselves are tricky. Allegations of hate speech or censorship ought to be engaged with on a case by case basis, as context, actors, and motives are all major factors in determining the legitimacy of such claims. However, if such policies must be developed in order to protect against funding cuts (see Doug Ford’s threat to universities), then it is a worthwhile discussion.
The hypocrisy of Ford’s threat reveals its absurdity, as free speech policy is broadly concerned with the regulation of speech. It posits that any public authority which limits an individual’s right to express themselves within reasonable limits is tyrannical. The implicit assumption in Ford’s move is that there is a free speech crisis on campus, as students’ ideas are being (formally or informally) repressed. This is a questionable conclusion, but Ford’s response to it is even more so.
To address the ‘problem’ of universities regulating speech, Ford is counter regulating speech by practically compelling universities to adopt free speech principles. This pushes the government into a position where, even on college campuses, it is the arbitrator of what is and isn’t free speech.
To get to the actual policies themselves, it’s reasonable to assume that the policies of each university would look similar anyway. It’s not like the University of Toronto is going to craft a policy that resembles Stalin-era USSR. While some student bodies may be more sensitive to the limits of such discussion, that itself is a reasonable and worthwhile conversation—one that should take place on the campus it concerns, rather than in the theatre of political grandstanding.
It is also worth considering the distinction between formal and informal suppressions of speech. If the university is actively disregarding legally entrenched free speech principles and disciplining students for making statements clearly within their rights, then Ford might have a point. But in order to enact such a response, the problem would have to be repetitive and consistent, and not rely upon the, ‘in my opinion, highly-publicized-but-relatively-isolated’ incidents that inspired Ford’s free speech crisis sentiment.
When one considers informal condemnations of free speech, like being the subject of social alienation after making a racist comment in class, the government has even less authority. The government is not in the business of making people listen to you. There is a clear distinction between being formally disciplined and being socially disciplined.
Universities are one of the major sources of substantial intellectual debate in society. If the tough questions aren’t being tackled on campuses or in the media, then we have a big problem.
If we genuinely do reach a Stalinesque point where a significant amount of students are terrified of each other and their professors, then government enforcing intellectual openness might be necessary. But until then it is a dramatic overstep, and universities should be free to develop their own free speech policies.