Only one Ontario university reported cancelling an event because of safety concerns in the eight months after the establishment of mandatory free-speech policies on postsecondary campuses, according to an assessment delivered to the provincial government.
All of the province’s universities and colleges were found to have complied with the directive by Premier Doug Ford in August, 2018, to develop and implement policies on free speech that met certain requirements.
But the report points out that the government did not ask schools to establish a hierarchy to ensure free speech takes precedence over civility and respect. It flagged the issue as a possible source of tension, although no specific cases emerged in the period from January to September, 2019.
The report was produced by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), a research agency funded by the government, and welcomed by Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano.
"Our government worked quickly to protect free speech on campus, and colleges and universities have done a great job of putting consistent, effective policies in place," Mr. Romano said in a statement.
All 24 of Ontario’s colleges adopted a single free-speech policy to comply with the provincial directive, while the province’s universities adopted their own versions. Three universities already had policies in place and left them untouched.
The policies had to meet standards established in the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression. No schools were found to have run afoul of those principles, according to the HEQCO’s assessment.
But the agency did identify the question of civility versus freedom of expression as a potential source of contention.
“As we understand it, the essential principle of the University of Chicago position is that freedom of speech explicitly and unequivocally takes precedence over civility and respect in public discourse,” the report states. It quoted a passage that says “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”
The notion that offensive speech should not receive official sanction from public institutions – even through something as simple as allowing speakers to book a room or host a public forum – has become increasingly controversial in recent years.
“Some of the university policies refer to respect, civility and the role of the institution as a place for free and open dialogue, but do not explicitly acknowledge the dominance of free speech within that context. Our concern is that a failure to do so undercuts the very essence of the principle,” the HEQCO report says.
Over the course of eight months, 21 complaints related to free speech were made at the province’s universities and colleges, and all were resolved internally, without having to involve the office of the Ontario Ombudsman.
At the University of Ottawa, for example, there were complaints about a statement a guest lecturer made about Israel, a professor who purportedly linked secularism in Quebec with racism, as well as characterizations of the historical treatment of Jews in Poland. The university, in its response, said most complaints were handled by its human-rights office, which concluded the statements were protected free speech.
The University of Toronto said it denied a request from the Canadian Nationalist Party to book a room because of safety concerns in January, 2019.
The report said Ontario’s campuses, at a conservative estimate, played host to more than 40,000 events in just eight months.
James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, said the whole exercise is a bad joke.
“There isn’t a fundamental free expression problem at Ontario universities,” Prof. Turk said. “The HEQCO report confirms that 40,000 events were held and there was one cancellation. My view is this was all part of Ford playing to a right-wing base, suggesting that the elites in these liberal institutions need to be reined in so they respect freedom of expression.”