Western's funding (Photo)

Western University must develop its free speech policy by January or risk funding cuts, August 31, 2018.

Western has until January 1, 2019 to create and enforce a policy that solidifies a stance on free speech after a surprise announcement Thursday from the provincial government.

The order requires Ontario universities develop a specific plan to protect free speech on campus or risk funding cuts. After January, institutions will have to consult with the government annually on their adherence, beginning in September of 2019.

With the order, the government has entered the fray of a debate that has engulfed campuses across North America and Europe for years: whether and to what extent free expression on campus should be curtailed to protect students from harm. One side believes unlimited free speech has caused unjust harm by protecting dangerous ideas; the other has vied to preserve the historical norm of free expression in liberal democracies. Bringing funding into play has given a university's position on free speech even greater importance.

Through his public relations organization "Ontario News Now," the premier discusses the policy.

Universities must meet standards the government derived from the University of Chicago's well-known Statement on Principles of Free Expression; most notably, "the university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive."

Danny Chang, the University Students' Council vice-president, is also the president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, a group of student government officials which advocates for students to the provincial government. He said much of the process is still uncertain, making it difficult to foresee how things unfold.

He said it will be particularly important to know where in the university's governance the policy will be drafted — the board of governors or the senate. The bodies convene at different intervals, which might affect the process' duration, and have different constituent members, which could affect whose voice is given most sway. Occasionally, important policies are passed through both bodies.

The administration provided a statement to the Gazette in response to the announcement, with no mention yet of where the policy will be housed.

"Western shares the Ontario government’s interest in protecting freedom of expression, and we are committed to working with all stakeholders, including faculty, students and the province, to provide opportunities for thoughtful debate and discussion on our campuses," the statement said. "We believe that any framework of this kind must balance the right to freedom of expression with universities’ duty to maintain a civil and inclusive campus environment, along with safety and security for faculty, students and staff."

Chang emphasized that in every possible case, both the USC and OUSA agree that students must be consulted on every aspect of the forthcoming policy. He added that hate speech and discrimination have no place on Western University's campus and would never be tolerated by either group.

"Students have the right to feel safe in expressing their opinions while still being protected from any discrimination or hate speech that happens on campus," he said.

The new policies must also govern official student groups, who can be prominent figures in campus speech controversies.

Last year, multiple demonstrations by a USC-sanctioned, pro-life club called Western Lifeline led to a campus discussion not only on abortion, but on free speech in general; there was one anonymous counter-protest defending a pro-choice perspective near the year's end.

Free speech became a question for last year's USC candidates to answer, particularly after a Western Lifeline demonstration that saw members with posters of fetuses outside the Wellness Education Centre, a mental health facility in the basement of the University Community Centre. The runner-up, Ocean Enbar, said Lifeline did not belong on campus; though he later backpedaled. The current executives, Chang and president Mitch Pratt, drew the line at unacceptable speech and violence.

As Western begins drafting their forthcoming policy, the USC and its executives could be an important consultation.

Western has not always reacted as strongly to controversial material as other Canadian universities.

The University of Ottawa, Ryerson University, Durham College, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and the University of Toronto Mississauga have denied club status to pro-life groups altogether.

Similarly, in April 2017, Jordan Peterson spoke at Western, an academic whose new career was already marked by notoriety. He sold out a lecture hall and faced no counter-protest. When Peterson spoke at McMaster University earlier on the same tour, he was swarmed by a student demonstration. At his own university, U of T, video of protesters at one of his earliest addresses launched Peterson's stardom.

But Western and the USC have leaned toward limiting some speech as well. The USC decided to remove two posters last year from the annual poster sale, one which was accused of appropriating Hindu culture, and the other mocking Christianity. In 2016, responding to a banner hung during Homecoming reading "Western Lives Matter," the administration apologized for "racist signage."

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Martin is the Senior News Editor at the Gazette. You can contact him at martin.allen@westerngazette.ca, or @mtrallen on Twitter.

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