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Opinion Doug Ford’s PCs believe in free speech – and those who don’t like it can shut up

Mandatory free speech is the kind of nonsensical doublespeak that in another era would be immediately derided.

Instead, the administrators of Ontario’s publicly funded colleges and universities are more or less meekly acquiescing to a provincial directive made last August that they “implement and comply with a free speech policy that meets a minimum standard prescribed by the government” by Jan. 1.

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The potential punishment for not doing so is a reduction in funding, which is perhaps why the province’s 24 colleges collectively consulted one single student and zero faculty members before rushing to release its joint policy. A number of universities have been similarly negligent.

Withholding money is, clearly, a threat meant to stifle dissent. And that’s just one of the ways the Progressive Conservatives’ recent edict on free expression twists around and contradicts itself.

Another is Premier Doug Ford discussing the policy in an “interview” on Ontario News Now, the channel the party created to avoid being held accountable by journalists. There, he promoted “free speech, open dialogue, open debate" – no further questions allowed – in the face of "special interest groups.”

Constant digs at unspecified “special interests” is yet another indication this free-speech campaign is insincere. On Tuesday, Mr. Ford dismissed the results of an online consultation on sexual education, launched last August to solicit Ontarians’ comments on the party’s rollback to a 20-year-old curriculum.

His news appearance came in light of a Canadian Press report that documents it obtained through a Freedom Of Information request that indicated the vast majority of respondents disagreed with the move.

Asked if he would respect the outcome of his government’s own survey, Mr. Ford suggested that he wouldn’t, saying the input of “certain groups” had skewed the results. Again, he was purposely vague, but I’d wager he’s trying to ignore the voices of his LGBTQ constituents, who have been a regular target.

Free speech, though. Honestly. That’s what this is about.

I’m not a regular on campus, and from the outside, many recent free speech dust-ups seem both mundane and scary. Watching stultifying bigots win inexplicable celebrity by peddling reboots of the entry-level “debates” that engross every stoned undergrad is so very dreary.

Imagine discussing real controversies – please, someone come at me with a heated opinion on the role of nuclear power in mitigating climate change. That’s a complicated issue on which I don’t have a concrete stance, and informed conversation could actually lead to important decisions.

Instead, we’re stuck with this obsession with whether people with uncommon gender expressions eat cute puppies for brunch. It’s such a yawn. That is, it would be if the merry-go-round of debating marginalized people’s humanity wasn’t actually dangerous.

The provincial government has indicated that “speech that violates the law” is exempted from its policy. But while the Criminal Code puts some clear limitations on freedom of expression (such as prohibiting child pornography, perjury, counselling suicide and advocating genocide) its prohibitions on “inciting hatred" against an identifiable group are less clearly defined.

The entire schtick of many self-appointed campus free speech champions revolves around denying that certain words, in certain combinations, might add up to incitement that could have serious, even fatal, consequences. Perhaps we’re headed for an era where all of this is repeatedly tested in the courts: Just this week, Toronto entrepreneur Mohamad Fakih, who is Muslim, won a defamation suit against a man who had made videos accusing him of being linked to terrorists.

That’s an easier (though not easy) process for a wealthy, established restaurateur, than for a twentysomething university student. Especially if said student considers the PCs' swift cuts to areas including the anti-racism directorate, domestic-violence programs and multiple Indigenous initiatives, and concludes that the opinions of “certain groups” aren’t welcome in the public sphere.

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The Mobius strip of the Ontario PCs' edict also decrees that while students have the right to protest speech they find objectionable, such protests must not shut down an event or speaker. Again, both schools and student groups are threatened with defunding if such a thing were to happen.

But protest is clearly free speech, enshrined in the same section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that covers other forms of free expression. For both speaker and students to have absolute free speech is impossible, which highlights a basic tension.

Many rights and freedoms are often in conflict, and at some point, someone has to decide who and what gets priority at any given time. On campus, that should be a community decision, an ever-evolving conversation that always involves faculty and students.

Instead, administrators have handed over that power to a clearly ideological government, one whose actions speak louder than words when it comes to free speech.

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