Ontario’s colleges have adopted a single free-speech policy that will apply at all of the province’s 24 college campuses, a move that has already raised opposition from the faculty union.
The province’s universities, meanwhile, are rushing to push their policies through university decision-making bodies to meet the province’s Jan. 1 deadline.
Doug Ford’s government ordered all provincially funded postsecondary institutions in late August to develop policies that protect the right to free speech on campus. Failure to do so by the New Year could result in financial penalties, the government said, leaving many institutions scrambling to formulate, consult on and pass a new policy.
The government said the free-speech policies should be modelled on a statement produced at the University of Chicago and should enshrine a handful of principles, including that no one may obstruct the free-speech rights of others and that students mustn’t be shielded from ideas.
The colleges have agreed on a joint policy, to be made public Monday, that they believe meets the government’s requirements. It was written by a committee of about a dozen college administrators and one student representative, but wasn’t widely discussed or debated, which has angered the faculty union.
“There was absolutely zero faculty input,” said RM Kennedy, college faculty division chair of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
The policy says that colleges must be places where controversial ideas can be explored, even if those ideas conflict with the views of members of the community. Colleges will consider compliance with the policy when making funding decisions about student groups, it says.
The union is concerned with language in the policy that states that a college “may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of freedom of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt normal college operations." It could be interpreted in a way that interferes with other rights such as freedom of assembly and may not be compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Mr. Kennedy said.
“It’s absolutely bizarre that they think they can regulate the time and place of free expression on a postsecondary campus. It undermines the very idea of what a postsecondary education is,” he said.
Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, an advocacy group, said the statement had to be written in a relatively short time and there were advantages to creating one policy for all. There will be an opportunity to review it in a year, she added.
“We wanted to make sure there was consistency across the college system,” she said. “I think it will work.”
Ms. Franklin said the policy was reviewed in draft form by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), which has been asked by the government to assess the free-speech policies after Jan. 1. They were comfortable with it, she said.
Harvey Weingarten, president of HEQCO, said his organization has a team of three people with expertise on free speech that will read and analyze the statements, and report to government on whether they conform with the Chicago statement.
The province’s 21 universities, meanwhile, have very different governance structures than the colleges, and are all developing statements separately. They have chosen typically one of three paths: to have a statement issued by the administration; to bring a statement to the university senate for debate and approval; or to take it to the university’s board of governors.
In some cases, the process has been open and collaborative, and in other cases less so, according to the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
At Algoma University, the policy is being issued by the administration. At York, the university senate and board of governors have approved a free-speech statement. At Ryerson, the university has been working on a revised statement on freedom of speech but it hasn’t yet been completed, and a recent senate meeting that discussed the policy was disrupted by protests, according to the campus press.
“The timeline that the ministry gave was, for universities to accomplish something, relatively short,” Algoma University’s academic dean Donna Rogers said.
Jim Turk, director of the centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, said the colleges' statement is very similar to statements produced by other institutions across North America.
He said the focus on free expression on campus has nothing to do with a supposed threat to free speech and everything to do with politics.
“It has to do with playing to [Mr. Ford’s] political base,” Prof. Turk said. “It’s very much a wedge issue.”
Danny Chang, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, said students have concerns with the policy directive. He said he worries that the right to oppose controversial speech on campus may be curtailed.
“There are marginalized students on our campuses concerned that this directive may inhibit lawful, constructive, dissent or opposition to speakers or groups on university campuses,” Mr. Chang said.