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Ontario’s new policy on speech: To Speak or not to Speak?

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party held the promise they made during their election campaign namely to tie public funding to free speech. That means that all publicly funded universities and colleges should create their own free speech policy using University of Chicago’s policy as a model. Student organisations and staff members have to conform as well. Failure of compliance will result in a reduction to the universities’ operating grant funding. The higher education institutions have a few months until the end of the year to comply with this law that obliges them to meet the minimum standard which includes their own definition of freedom of speech. Moreover they should also have principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression that states the following:

  • Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry 
  • The University/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive
  • While members of the university/college are free to criticise and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views.
  • Speech that violates the law is not allowed.
  • That existing student discipline measures apply to students whose actions are contrary to the policy (e.g., ongoing disruptive protesting that significantly interferes with the ability of an even to proceed).

 Other principles that should be part of the free speech policy are the following:

  • That institutions consider official student groups’ compliance with the policy as condition for ongoing financial support or recognition, and encourage student unions to adopt policies that align with the free speech policy.
  • That the college/university uses existing mechanism to  handle complaints and ensure compliance. Complaints against an institution that remain unresolved may be referred to the Ontario Ombudsman. 

 Although aiming at promoting freedom of speech and expression on campus, this freedom is not limitless after all. Canadian law on hate speech  is above any speech related policy. That is, one may express his or her views but shall not advocate genocide, publicly incite hate or promote hate. This may look like a shift from the American University of Chicago’s model that they want to emulate. In the states, the law allows one to express any ideas they have regardless of how offensive it may be to others the only intervention made is if that speech actually calls for violence. However, University of Chicago’s policy also states it should be compliant with the law. The only difference then being that the laws regarding freedom of speech and hate speech are different in the US. In this regard, the Canadian policies on freedom of speech on campuses is similar to the UK. UK's free speech law states that:

“Everyone has the right to free speech within the law. Unless it is unlawful, speech should

usually be allowed. Free speech within the law should mean just that. This can include

the right to say things which, though lawful, others may find disturbing or upsetting.”

The policy on freedom of speech should not be regarded as a mean to over-regulate the already existing norms i.e. the speech shall not advocate for hate and violence. It is a common understanding and a universally-shared principle. Such policies are mere a right given to students. It aims at recalling people at universities that they are free to express their opinions. This however shall be done in a fair manner to others and within the legal framework.