Over the last two years, there’s been ongoing debate and unease regarding freedom of expression on university campuses in Canada. Concerns over freedom of expression reached a high in wake of the Wilfrid Laurier University affair, where a teaching assistant showed a controversial video regarding gender-neutral pronouns to her class.
In response to this confusion, the Ontario government is now requiring that all Ontario universities and colleges create “free speech policies,” in which each institution clarifies its rules and regulations surrounding the aforementioned topics. These policies must adhere to minimum guidelines outlined by the Ontario government, modelling after the “University of Chicago Statement on Principles Freedom of Expression.” Such principles include protecting dissenting opinions, no matter how sensitive the topic, and placing limitations on hate speech. Failure to draft a policy by January 1, 2019, will result in funding cuts from the Ontario government.
This comes at a time when free speech needs to be clarified more than ever. In light of Jordan Peterson’s challenges of the gender pronoun-focused Bill C-16, as well as a volatile sociopolitical climate in the United States under the Trump presidency, there’s a great deal of confusion as to when free speech becomes hate speech.
If we don’t clarify what is and isn’t considered reasonable academic discussion, we risk turning university campuses into bubbles, where students are shielded from sensitive topics because they might be offended. It’s important that students feel safe on campus, but a university’s role shouldn’t be to censor sensitive topics. Presenting and discussing opposing viewpoints is an integral part of academia. Students and faculty alike must be able to present their views without fear of reparation if we’re ever to make academic progress.
As stated earlier, there is no clear line between hate speech and free speech, to begin with. Hate speech laws in Canada are vague, placing a great deal of power in the authority who applies them in legal grey areas. This isn’t the fault of the Canadian government; no amount of clever legal wording can create a consistent and clear boundary between hate speech and free speech.
However, there’s a clearer line between free speech and what might be called “violent speech.” Violent speech constitutes threats, harassment, and direct incitements of violence. Violent speech isn’t an opinion; it’s blatant psychological harm that undermines the right to security of a person. Violent speech should never be tolerated on university campuses and should be where we draw the line.
Despite the necessity of free speech policies, the Ontario government is giving too much choice to individual institutions. Rather than using the University of Chicago Statement as a base and then allowing specific schools to make alterations as they see fit, freedom of expression should extend to everyone equally, regardless of the specific institution they’re involved with. If we allow for differing policies on freedom of speech, we risk creating rifts of expression and freedom between schools. The problem would be better approached at a governmental level to ensure equality across institutions.
Freedom of expression is a pressing concern in colleges, universities, and free societies in general. We shouldn’t need to clarify free expression, but if we don’t, we risk exacerbating the issue even further. Despite possible inconsistencies in individual policies, hopefully, the new legislation in Ontario will create a model other universities and governments in Canada can follow to clarify freedom of expression.