Will new rules around free speech on campus wind up silencing protestors?

Ontario and Alberta universities have been told to draft new free-speech policies that could sanction those who oppose them

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Students protest Faith Goldy’s appearance at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., in 2018 (Hannah Yoon/CP)

When Kayla Weiler was in her final year at the University of Guelph—where last spring she earned a degree in history—she noticed a trend that worried her: groups with racist views were coming on campus at night to tape up posters with messages such as “It’s OK to be white.” The next day, they would check Facebook to see if they’d stirred up any kind of student reaction. What they were trying to do, says Weiler, who is Ontario’s representative to the Canadian Federation of Students, “is pull in people who might be interested in that kind of racist dog whistle.”

Weiler is concerned that this trend could escalate now that Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has mandated all publicly assisted universities and colleges to develop new free-speech policies. (Their deadline was Jan. 1, 2019.) The policies apply to students, faculty, administration, campus staff and any guests of a university. Ontario has directed the schools, in framing their new policies, to consult the Chicago principles, which were developed in 2014 by a University of Chicago committee “in light,” it said, “of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.”

In the spring of that year—which became known as the “Disinvitation Season”—there was a spike in student-led efforts to prevent various figures from making commencement speeches at U.S. colleges. Most, but not all, disinvitation activism was aimed at right-leaning speakers. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state during George W. Bush’s presidency, was invited to give the commencement speech at Rutgers but cancelled when students protested her appearance. Two years later, President Barack Obama addressed the incident in his own commencement speech at Rutgers. “I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration,” he said. “But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former secretary of state, or shutting out what she had to say—I believe that’s misguided. I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other.” Since 2014, disinvitations have continued at an increasing pace, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

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In its 2014 report outlining its position on free speech, the University of Chicago declared it has the responsibility to “not only promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” While stating it is important to maintain a climate of civility and mutual respect on campuses, the authors of the principles added, “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

“Although members of the university community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus,” the authors wrote, “they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

Ontario’s post-secondary institutions were given some leeway to develop their new free-speech policies in ways that reflect their particular school cultures and needs. In its new free-speech policy, for example, McMaster University included wording designed to give some comfort to those who may feel targeted by the rhetoric Kayla Weiler witnessed at Guelph. While stressing it upholds a commitment to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, the McMaster policy states that it “also recognizes the imbalances in power that exist within our community and the disproportionate impact such imbalances have upon marginalized groups and individuals. All members of the university community are required to respect the rights and freedoms of others and engage with one another in a spirit of mutual respect, understanding and regard for human dignity.”

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Nevertheless, the Ford government insisted Ontario’s post-secondary institutions meet certain minimum requirements set out in the Chicago principles, including one that says, “While members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views.” Ontario schools have to file annual reports on free speech activities and issues on their campuses, and those that don’t adhere to the minimum requirements face the possibility of the government withholding some of their funding.

Alberta, now governed by Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party, will soon follow the Ford government in adopting the Chicago principles blueprint, and will require all its publicly funded post-secondary institutions to have new free-speech guidelines by Dec. 15, 2019. Demetrios Nicolaides,  Alberta’s minister of advanced education, told Maclean’s three factors spurred his government’s decision to strengthen free speech regimes at the province’s colleges and universities this year. “First and foremost, there is a trend that is being evidenced on campuses around the world in which speakers or individuals who want to present alternative viewpoints are being denied the ability to speak and come and present.”

“Secondly,” added Nicolaides, “there have been some documented incidents here in Alberta of limits being placed around speech. So that has also raised some concerns.”

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Nicolaides didn’t specify particular incidents. One reported in the media in 2015 involved 70 pro-choice students at the University of Alberta vociferously protesting fellow student Amberlee Nicol’s attempt as part of a pro-life rally to put up graphic anti-abortion information on campus. Nicol was president of UAlberta Pro-Life, a registered student club at the university. As protesters tried to cover up the organization’s anti-abortion images, university security did nothing to prevent them or to help Nicol’s group. The pro-choice protestors said that, with its images of aborted fetuses set up in a high-traffic area, the UAlberta Pro-Life display would offend some sensitive students. The following year, when Nicol tried to schedule an anti-abortion event again, the administration demanded she pay $17,500 in security fees first. Nicol complained to the CBC that this demand put a price tag on free speech. (UAlberta Pro-Life took the matter to court, which dismissed the application. The organization appealed this decision, and the Alberta Court of Appeal reserved its decision in November 2018.)

Nicolaides ticked off a third reason for bringing the Chicago principles to Alberta: the recognition that academic freedom “[plays] a critical and central role” to the province’s post-secondary institutions. Without reinforcing the protections around free speech on campuses, he said, maintaining the mandate of academic freedom becomes more challenging.

But the CFS and others question why Canadian universities and colleges need new freedom of speech guidelines. Most already had them. “It’s a mystery to me,” says Bernie Farber, who chairs Antihate.ca, a Canadian NGO that monitors and exposes hate groups. “I don’t think there has been a huge problem on university campuses in relation to free speech. The odd time when a Nazi has shown up, there have been complaints and concerns expressed. But for the most part these people get to speak. And unless they violate the law, universities in this country have been relatively open. Sometimes I think even too much so. Sometimes I think they have allowed certain expressions that are in violation of the law.”

A fire alarm interrupted Goldy’s speech at WLU in 2018, but she did speak outside the campus (Hannah Yoon/CP)

In March 2018, Faith Goldy, a former Toronto mayoralty candidate and a far-right commentator who has appeared on the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, was invited to speak at Wilfrid Laurier University. Hundreds of students protested, and just as Goldy began her speech, someone pulled a fire alarm. The event was cancelled.

Under the Chicago principles, the CFS fears, if Ontario post-secondary students were to protest an appearance by Goldy today—despite the fact she’s been kicked off Facebook and Instagram for spreading hate messages against identifiable groups—they could face punishment for non-academic misconduct. The Ford government has warned it could withdraw some of a school’s funding should it fail to take action against such students.

One day after Ontario announced it was imposing new free-speech guidelines on its higher education institutions, the CFS, which represents 530,000 students across the country, issued a statement saying that while students have long advocated for freedom of expression and academic freedom, “. . . in recent years we have seen the concept of free speech co-opted to protect and defend hate speech on campus.” Nour Alideeb, chairperson of CFS-Ontario, stated, “The rhetoric of defending free speech is used to protect racist, homophobic, transphobic and otherwise oppressive discourse on campuses and to silence any dissent against them.”

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The United States has 4,298 degree-granting post-secondary institutions. So far, 62—including Princeton and Purdue—have adopted the Chicago principles or variations of them. With Ontario’s 46 institutions required to do the same and Alberta’s 24 publicly funded colleges and universities soon to be required to as well, Canada will have eight more educational institutions following the Chicago principles than the entire United States.

Not all student organizations in Canada resist them. In Edmonton, Emmanauel Barker, director of government relations and advocacy at the Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC), thanked Minister of Advanced Education Nicolaides for bringing the Chicago principles to Alberta. Barker says ASEC, which represents 105,000 students at 14 universities and colleges across Alberta, is grateful for the independence the Kenney government gave institutions to write their own versions of the policy, and for extending the deadline for doing so from Oct. 15 to Dec. 15. Barker, a 2017 graduate of the University of Saskatchewan with a degree in international development, says ASEC “supports the principle of free expression, especially within the Canadian legal context.”

New guidelines, he says, are “beneficial to the student experience by providing expectations around conduct, and not the content of the speakers.” He adds, “We are proud that in Alberta, freedom of expression is not a controversial topic.” He says Alberta students are more interested in debating the long-term sustainability and affordability of the province’s universities and colleges than debating free speech issues.

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Asked if there is a risk that some Alberta college and university students might feel endangered by lawful speeches on campus, Barker says that for ASEC, it’s important that both students and schools be prepared for this possibility. ASEC, he says, “has continually prioritized student support services” and believes that whatever free speech guidelines Alberta schools adopt this December, they should include information referring students to help should they be affected by “the adoption of these principles, or whatever versions institutions settle on.”

In 2016, Jay Ellison, the University of Chicago’s dean of students, wrote a letter to all incoming students. Describing the school’s position on freedom of expression, he wrote, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Dean Ellison might have frowned on what happened at York University in Toronto last March as students held a vigil for the 51 Muslims massacred in New Zealand by an alleged white supremacist. As people gathered for the vigil at Canada’s third-largest university, which has 56,000 students, a white York student wandered into the gathering wearing a red Make America Great Again hat—a symbol of Donald Trump’s divisive presidency.

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Jasmine Hawamdeh, vice-president of campaigns and advocacy for the York Federation of Students, spoke at the vigil. The MAGA-capped student, she recounts, was “staring at students. He wanted students to notice him. He was acting very smug and laughed while we were having moments of silence.” Almost immediately after the vigil ended, the YFS felt it had to open its wellness centre on campus to support students upset by what had happened.

Hawamdeh says the student wearing the MAGA cap “took up space that wasn’t his, due to the fact that that hat was a trigger in that space. That student,” she adds, “was inspired by rhetoric. By right-wingers across the country who said this shooting wasn’t that bad.”

Hawamdeh worries that, with the fundamentals of the Chicago principles now installed at all Ontario public universities, the Ford government has emboldened members of hate organizations to seek more prominent platforms for their ideologies on campuses. While there are much stronger laws against hate speech in Canada than there are in the United States, which should help thwart the most extreme and violent sorts of speech from taking place on Canadian campuses, our courts have been inconsistent in determining just how the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to students. Nevertheless, CFS-Ontario’s Kayla Weiler predicts that regardless of the Chicago principles, students will continue to voice opposition to views they find offensive and wrong-headed.

But Hawamdeh worries that if students exercise what they believe is their right to organize and protest, those students could face administrative discipline. “Who does this policy really protect when students are protesting speakers like Faith Goldy?” she asks. “Marginalized groups on our campus, especially racialized communities, the Muslim community, the black community, they are telling us they feel endangered by right-wing rhetoric. That’s a problem. And it’s a problem that is the federation’s job to protect them.”

This article appears in print in the 2020 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Who gets to talk on campus?” Order a copy of the issue here or subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.