All you have to do is scroll through Twitter to see the latest discriminatory act of the American President. Now you don’t need to look further than local news: the Ontario Premier is trying his best to make the province just as exclusionary — by mandating free speech.
In the most recent crusade for free speech, the Ontario government has stepped into the crossfire. In a press release this past Thursday, Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontario post-secondary schools must have a codified free speech policy or risk losing government funding. Schools must provide a definition for "free speech" and create a plan to protect it on campus. The provincial government claims that this policy will “encourage freedom of thought.”
The “free speech crisis” is a widely debated epidemic sweeping campuses across Ontario. As a potentially complicated topic, it’s hard to decide where to stand. While I understand the argument for total free speech, it is important to protect those not represented in Ford’s policies. This is a buzzword issue in which institutions and university administrations must decide whether to allow free speech or hinder it based on student safety.
Western already has a relatively relaxed policy regarding freedom of speech. While other Canadian universities, like the University of Victoria and the University of Ottawa, have denied ratification to anti-abortion groups on campus, Western’s pro-life group, Lifeline, has only increased its presence on campus in the past year. Jordan Peterson, a notoriously controversial speaker and professor at the University of Toronto, was widely embraced on Western’s campus — right after being booed out of McMaster University.
Free speech should be about challenging the norm and pushing boundaries, not reverting and removing rights that minority groups have fought to achieve. And although Ford’s press release specifies that this new policy will condemn hate speech, groups supporting hate may benefit from the policy and put students in danger on their own campuses. Ford’s policy could end up protecting the very groups it's mandated to condemn.
Don’t get me wrong — as university students, it’s incredibly important that we have the right to exercise our freedom of expression and that we hear ideas that challenge our norms. However, in recent years, the term “freedom of speech” has become a moral grey area as the lines between protest and hate speech are increasingly blurred. “Free speech” is now a term shouted to justify slander: it often accompanies groups supporting white nationalist or anti-LGBTQ2+ rhetoric. It has become a defence for voicing any opinion, no matter how radical, without any consequences.
This radicalized version of free speech has become the basis of the premier’s free speech mandate. Ford’s actions reflect a belief that universities muzzle students from voicing their opinions. But universities have no interest in stifling the freedom of their students; panels, rallies and events are only cancelled if a school feels it would create an unsafe environment for students.
In 2017, the University of Toronto prevented the Canadian Nationalist Party from hosting a rally out of concern for public safety and security at the event. This protest came in the wake of the Charlottesville Riot in Virginia in which Heather Heyer, a counter protester, was killed by a member of the Unite the Right rally. The president of U of T, Meric Gertler, also spoke about the school’s “unwavering commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion” in regards to how the hateful message of the protest is unwelcome. The school did not deny the student’s right to protest; however, they denied them a platform on campus.
This new policy gives universities an easy defence against decision-making regarding student safety, as they don't have to consider the details of each case. Using blanket policies like this means they can more easily ignore complaints by deferring to previously published statements.
Through Ford’s new policy, freedom of speech has the potential to trump student safety. Asking universities to codify a grey area forces schools to forfeit the ability to work on a case-by-case basis. Although universities seem to be moving toward a more nuanced understanding of what harms students, this law will force schools to revert to a more basic definition in order to be applied to all situations.
Groups that support white supremacy, violence towards minorities or other exclusionary narratives don’t just make students uncomfortable: they directly threaten students' rights and safety. When a student doesn’t feel safe on their own campus, their right to education and freedom of expression are inhibited. Giving hate a voice on campus diminishes the voice of those being oppressed.
Western needs to consider its students. The school's policies and stance regarding free speech are outwardly conservative compared to other Canadian universities. According to demographic statistics compiled by the university in 2011, more than half of undergraduate students are female. In a survey conducted by the Gazette in 2018, 23 per cent of students identity as queer, and one per cent of student identify as non-binary. Considering our diverse campus, shouldn’t policy reflect that?
The premier’s commitment to free speech is dismal at best. His policies mandate codifying free speech, but by giving a platform to supremacy and hate, his policy threatens those already disenfranchised. And with an absence of voices in the melting pot of conversation, whom is he really protecting?