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Policy & Practice

The theatrics of the Ford government regarding free speech on campus

Most with a working knowledge of higher education would agree we are nowhere near a free speech crisis in colleges and universities, let alone one justifying government intervention.

par CRESO SÁ | 06 SEP 18

Theatrics is inherent to politics. Practiced with apparent sincerity and decorum, it can rally support around a government or a cause. On the other hand, histrionic displays of indignation or sorrow sometimes reek of hypocrisy and backfire. We all understand this, although we may disagree on who crossed the line. Sometimes theatre is used as a device to persuade voters of the need for a course of action to address a real problem. At other times, there is no real problem or coherent course of action to be embellished – the performance itself is the main goal, as it provides politicians the opportunity to claim credit for appearing to be acting on what voters believe is an issue.

Enter recent Ontario politics. In the lead up to the start of the academic year, the Progressive Conservative government followed up on Premier Doug Ford’s campaign promise to enforce free speech on college and university campuses. Essentially the government now requires higher education institutions to develop free speech policies, enforce them, and report on their efforts to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Universities that don’t comply with the new requirement or choose not to follow the policies, may see cuts in operating budgets, at the discretion of the government.

The gap between the theatrics of Progressive Conservative’s embrace of campus free speech and reality is wide. Most with a working knowledge of higher education would agree that we are nowhere near a free speech crisis in colleges and universities, let alone one justifying government intervention – and we would think that the bar for the nanny state to step in would be higher for a PC government. The few cases that make the newspapers are upsetting and illustrate poor judgement from students, faculty, and administrators. However, they are hardly typical of the scores of conversations, debates, and events that take place uneventfully across campuses every week. But normalcy does not make the news.

The PC party obviously chose to define this as a problem worth addressing because the conventional wisdom about campus free speech pits a loud majority of left wing social justice warriors against conservative speakers and ideas. Federal PC leader Andrew Scheer, whose leadership run included a similar free speech proposal that explicitly targeted political correctness and safe spaces, congratulated Premier Ford on the policy. The Ford campaign said relatively little about free speech, perhaps wisely, as maintaining the veneer of a principled stance requires avoiding elaboration. However, Training, Colleges, and Universities Minister Fullerton recently exemplified the horror of censorship “on campus” through an event that was disrupted at the Ottawa Public Library, involving a self-described anti-feminist professor. No matter the incoherence, a display of strength from the progressive conservative government against institutions perceived as dominated by left-of-centre student groups and professors, shows conservative voters that the premier is on their side.

The government’s statement on the policy asks institutions to define freedom of speech, reminds them that “speech that violates the law is not allowed”, and compels them to adopt the Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago (would that have anything to do with profuse praise in a recent Globe and Mail editorial?). Why the University of Chicago’s, and not the made-in-Canada 1992 Statement on Freedom of Speech of the University of Toronto, which is as strong a defense of free speech as one can find? What if each of the 44 colleges and universities defines freedom of speech differently?

We will likely never have answers to these questions. The Council of Ontario Universities issued a mildly obsequious statement expressing a shared commitment to freedom of expression, tortuously reminding the government that universities have “policies that affirm the right to freedom of expression for students, faculty and staff, and have mechanisms in place to resolve disputes.” COU has thus accepted the role it plays in the free speech spectacle set up by the government, which may be good tactics to avoid bruising egos of interlocutors who hold the purse strings. Nonetheless, this is a rather short-term and ineffectual form of public relations. The Ontario citizen who may inadvertently come across this message will see validation, not contestation, of the free speech crisis, which does not bode well for the public perception of universities.

If the free speech policy were anything but a show, we would expect to see a modicum of thought given to what the government expects colleges and universities to do that is different from what they have been doing, and adds to what is already determined by the law. But this is the premier that campaigned on “buck-a-beer”, that has required schools to teach a 26-year-old sex-ed curriculum, and enforced a reduction of Toronto city council. Reasonable deliberation and evidence-based policy are not high on the agenda, and it would be surprising to see anything but theatrics when it comes to higher education.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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  1. John / 12 septembre 2018 à 13:29

    The author is obviously unaware of the wide range of anti-free speech practices in universities. He could start by reading the latest news about Acadia University’s (former) professor Rick Mehta (Acadia fires Rick Mehta after fire storm over comments). Indeed, there is a huge issue around free speech in universities, and indeed, the Ontario government is doing the right thing to remind universities that free speech must be protected.

    It is sadly ironic that a university professor has chosen to write an article criticizing efforts to protect free speech at universities.

  2. Lorne Carmichael / 12 septembre 2018 à 16:11

    It is ironic, as John says, that an article like this would come out right after it appears that one of our tenured colleagues in Nova Scotia has been fired for what he said.

    It is not just free speech that is under threat, but also freedom of assembly. No-one is forced to go to a Jordan Peterson talk, or a Men’s Issues Conference on campus. It is not that the speech would harm anyone, because those who are afraid of being harmed don’t have to listen. And those who are interested can hear the ideas elsewhere. So why all the fuss?

    For some groups on campus the problem seems to be that events like these allow people to discuss ideas among themselves without the caring and benevolent guidance of the appropriate overseers. This, I think, is what the « ctrl-left » is most concerned about. Should we allow any old group of men to talk with each other about feminism?


    I would love it if my colleagues were making this point more strongly than Doug Ford.

  3. Stuart Chambers / 13 septembre 2018 à 09:36

    I agree with the author. A few cases of campus protests do not represent a crisis, and Doug Ford is pandering to free speech absolutists who are more angry at the students protesting than they are at the bogus claims of the speakers. I am not suggesting for a minute that speakers be shut down, but what would Jordan Peterson, a psychologist by trade, know about postmodern philosophy? The grand total of his publishing on postmodernism: zero books, zero scholarly articles. Yet he is invited to discuss postmodernism in a nuanced way. You may as well invite Ann Coulter to discuss Islam. It would amount to the same kind of ranting.

  4. If there was no crisis, I'd be sharing my name / 3 janvier 2019 à 02:25

    Stuart Chambers, a brief review of Jordan Peterson’s ResearchGate profile reveals that he has published over 60 journal articles (I lost interest and stopped counting at 61), several of which are related to philosophy, culture or religion as it relates to postmodernism. He has also published two books which address issues within the postmodern context. If you look up his Youtube channel, you will find he lectures on social psychology, with an interest, if not expertise in religion and philosophy as it relates to postmodern social constructs. There is a free speech crisis on campuses when people can make up b.s. and claim it to be fact in order to shut down those with whom they disagree, without apparently ever having bothered to listen/read/consider with an open mind.