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opinion

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

The government of Ontario has recently announced a new policy for the province’s universities and colleges. They will be expected to develop their own rules and procedures for guaranteeing free expression. These must include a definition of freedom of speech and must adhere to the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression. Institutions must not shield their students from ideas with which they disagree, nor may any members of the community obstruct the freedom of expression of others. Only legally defined hate speech is to be prohibited. Institutions that fail to comply could face funding cuts.

Some critics have belittled this announcement, which fulfilled a Tory campaign promise, as a sop to the party’s conservative base. That would seem to imply that it should be unwelcome to liberals. In fact, liberals should embrace it.

The liberals are not the ones in danger of any kind of suppression. But if free speech is not protected for all, emphatically including conservatives, then universities will face the consequences.

One must resist hyperbole. There is no reign of terror of political correctness on Canadian university campuses. They are much freer of such repression than their U.S. counterparts. Still, there have been grievous episodes here and there, and it’s appropriate for the province to act to further stiffen the spines of our universities.

The general response by university authorities to Mr. Ford’s announcement has been a positive one. They’ve recognized that because it is only reasonable for universities to issue and enforce policies protecting freedom of expression, it is reasonable for the province to require them to do so. Of course, there remain many questions as to how the policy will play out in practice. But that is true of any new guideline.

Jim Turk, the director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, has denounced the plan as an “unprecedented abuse of university autonomy.” In fact, the province is respecting the autonomy of each university by requiring (and therefore permitting) it to elaborate its own system of protecting free expression, within very broad guidelines, with its own procedures, penalties and so on.

In any case, the relevant mantra for universities is autonomy under the law. Never in their long history have campuses enjoyed total autonomy. Certainly not the modern university, which is publicly funded in order to achieve society’s goals. Free expression is a necessary means to achieve these ends. Since the 17th century, liberals have recognized it as an indispensable condition of progress, both intellectual and social. Minorities and mavericks must be heard so that the lives of majorities may be improved. Since as a matter of law liberal societies guarantee free expression in all realms, it would be bizarre not to do so in the crucial arena of higher learning.

You often hear that our campuses should be safe and accommodating. And so they should – but only within the limits imposed by the necessity of securing free expression. That rules out any policy of protecting students from opinions they may find unwelcome. Exposure to different points of view is what education is all about. The province is right to insist that universities draw the line at expression that legally qualifies as hate speech – and hate speech only. Universities are not and must not become enablers of the thin skinned who would rather repress views contrary to their own than rise to the challenge of debating them.