Illustration by Tricia Lim

There is no free speech problem at Canadian post-secondaries

September 20 2018 — 

At the beginning of the school year, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a policy threatening funding cuts to Ontario post-secondary institutions should they not adopt ‘strong free-speech policies’ — whatever that means — by Jan. 1, 2019.

Though the policy passed in Ontario will not affect post-secondary institutions in Alberta, it still highlights a concerning reactionary trend.

The topic of free speech, specifically on campuses, has become a quick political trigger to spark a maelstrom of commentary from all political stances. Protests and calls for the cancellation of events with controversial speakers are often cited as proof of the demise of open intellectual debate at universities.

It’s true that universities ought to be a place where intellectual debate is not stifled. But it’s also essential that such debates and discussions are grounded in empirical evidence, insightful theory and logical reasoning.   

However, a clear distinction exists between what constitutes “free speech” and how it differs from “hate speech.” Though the Globe and Mail reports that the Ontario policy is not meant to allow what is legally defined in Canada as hate speech, it’s unclear how requiring these university policies would be different than what is already required under Canadian law. And that begs the question — why is this necessary?

The distinction between what constitutes free speech or hate speech is often described as a grey area. However, characterizing the distinction between the two as blurry begins to normalize bigoted, dangerous dialogue. It justifies campuses providing a platform to literal white nationalists, as occurred at Wilfrid Laurier University with Faith Goldy scheduled to speak in March of this year.

Denouncing abhorrent views such as Goldy’s or calling for the cancellation of an event is not an attack on free speech. In fact, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, protection against these alleged violations of someone’s freedom of expression doesn’t exist.

The fundamental freedom that the Charter protects is the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” However, freedom of expression under the Charter is not absolute. This freedom is constrained to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Though this initially reads as an affront to our rights, such a clause is necessary to make it legal for governments to pass laws regarding hate speech, obscenity and defamation.

The proposed policy by the Ontario government is concerning for two reasons. Firstly, it suggests that the freedom of expression already protected by the Charter, but subject to reasonable limits, does not go far enough. It incorrectly invites that the views held by people like Goldy should be given a platform at universities.

Secondly, the Ontario government’s weaponization of post-secondary funding to stoke their political base violates the independence of universities as intellectual forums. It falsely asserts that universities are no longer a place that values free expression. As reported in the Globe and Mail, Jim Turk, the director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, called the policy an “unprecedented abuse of university autonomy.”

As a news media outlet, freedom of expression is one of the most vital pieces in the Charter for our work. It’s what currently allows me to write and publish an editorial criticizing Ford’s proposed policy without being afraid that the police are going to come knocking on my door tonight and throw me in jail.

But that’s as far as the provision goes.

It doesn’t guarantee a platform for you to voice opinions, nor does it protect you from criticism of said opinions. Just because an event or a speaker was cancelled, be it due to protest or otherwise, does not mean free expression was violated. On university campuses, such protests against events with controversial speakers leading to them backing out — often, yes, right-winged — are then used to mischaracterize freedom of speech as being under attack.

Even so, a variety of recent events still held at the University of Calgary undeniably show that, at least here, our public academic institutions have not become some sort of Orwellian bastion of restricted dialogue, despite what the reactionary narrative is trying to convince you to believe. 

One can be upset that the U of C provided a platform to a speechwriter of former United States president George Bush — one who vehemently supported the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting war that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians — and his calls for ‘the left’ to moderate their opposition to the far-right’s views, lest they become even more radicalized.

And maybe, we should be more critical when our institution gives a platform to the lobster man who characterizes women advocating for social justice as “shrieking harpies of fairness and victimization.”

And honestly, we are perturbed that, after previous failed attempts, an event for the screening of the notoriously misogynistic film The Red Pill was quietly held at the university on Sept. 8.

The point being, these events are still held. Just because some students object to the content of these speakers, appealing to freedom of expression is not a shield that blocks criticism.

Opposition to such events does not and should not constitute as a violation of the freedom of expression. In fact, a university policy that imposes consequences on university members — be it students, faculty or staff — for protesting such events commits a far more egregious breach on our freedom of expression than what the policy intends to protect.

Ultimately, we are using our platform to voice our concerns surrounding the underlying intentions and effects of Ontario’s proposed policy, as well as the normalization of hateful discourse justified by a false narrative that universities no longer support the freedom of expression.

Derek Baker, Gauntlet Editorial Board

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