NEWS, ANALYSIS AND OPINION
Ontario’s two dozen colleges – St. Clair included – now have a universal “Free Speech On Campus” policy, as dictated by the provincial government … although the union representing faculty members at the schools is less than impressed by the fact that professors were not included in the task force that created the new guidelines.
In a December 17th email to all staff, St. Clair President Patti France announced the introduction of the new policy, and the background of its creation:
As you may be aware, on August 30, 2018, Ontario’s colleges made a public commitment to support a provincial government directive to develop and implement a free speech policy by January 1, 2019.
A system-wide task force, that included senior college leaders, legal experts and a representative of the College Student Alliance, came together to develop a common policy statement for Ontario’s 24 colleges. The policy statement was reviewed by both the Coordinating Committee of Vice-Presidents, Academic and the Coordinating Committee of Vice-Presidents, Students. It was then approved by college presidents, who have agreed to adopt the common policy at each of our institutions.
The policy statement codifies the existing practice of respectful discourse and debate, professionalism, civility, and freedom of expression that is already commonplace at our college. It is primarily based on the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression, and includes five core elements:
• A definition of freedom of speech;
• A commitment to allow open discussion and free enquiry;
• A statement that it is not the colleges’ role to shield members of the college community from ideas they disagree with;
• A statement that while members of the college community are free to contest the views of others, they must also respect the rights of others to express their views; and
• An affirmation that speech that violates the law is not allowed and that there are other limits to the right of expression.
The policy also notes that existing college mechanisms and processes will be used to handle complaints and ensure compliance, and that unresolved complaints may be referred to the Ontario Ombudsman. It further states that the policy is aligned with other college policies, and that they shall all be considered together. The policy will apply to all college employees, students, guests and others who are present at the college.
The policy has been posted to our college’s website and can be found at: http://www.stclaircollege.ca/boardandstaff/corporatedocuments/scc_policy_5-22.pdf.
St. Clair College is committed to free expression. We encourage the open discussion of diverse ideas within our communities, and appreciate the partnership across the sector that supports this initiative.
WHY WAS IT NECESSARY?
That’s a very good question …
The fact of the matter is that volatile debates about free speech – or contentious incidents pertaining to free speech – have not been particularly common or frequent within Ontario’s college system in recent memory.
But free speech has, in contrast, been a major topic within the province’s university system during the past decade or so – sometimes when professors have lectured on certain topics, but moreso when guest speakers have been invited to campuses to present their views on controversial issues.
Some of those incidents have led to protests by students and staff … and some of those have had overtones (or undertones) of the “millennial snowflake” variety, along the lines of “This person’s opinion is hurting my feelings, so I shouldn’t have to listen to it, and this speaker should be banned from my campus”.
The fact that some of those protests were associated with speakers of a right-wing political stance certainly irked conservatives – and “capital C” Conservatives too. So, perhaps not surprisingly, when Doug Ford’s Tories came into power during last summer’s election, they set out to ensure that universities would address free speech matters.
And it applied its demand to the entire postsecondary sector – colleges included.
The Conservatives’ significant concern about the matter was emphasized by the fact that the demand for the new policy was not issued by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) – but, rather, by the Premier himself. In late-August, Doug Ford stated, "Colleges and universities should be places where students exchange different ideas and opinions in open and respectful debate. Our government made a commitment to the people of Ontario to protect free speech on campuses.”
At that time, Ford and the Tories also announced that “to monitor compliance, colleges and universities must report annually on their progress (in protecting free speech) to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, starting in September, 2019. Colleges and universities that do not comply with the free speech requirements may be subject to a reduction in operating grant funding.”
Another interesting tidbit from the original provincial edict in August: “That institutions (should) 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 means that student councils and campus clubs would have to recognize and abide by the policy too … So, for instance, a student organization that interfered with a speaker’s presentation might have its funding yanked by the school’s administration.
UNION NOT IMPRESSED
Just as the colleges were introducing the new policy in mid-December, the union representing faculty members complained that they had not been consulted about its creation, because no professors were included on the task force formed by Colleges Ontario to write the new guidelines.
(Colleges Ontario is the organization representing the administrations/management of the two dozen schools.)
In a press release, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) President Warren Thomas portrayed the process as “Ontario colleges ramming through a free speech policy in virtual secrecy with next to no consultation … It’s ironic that college administrators have developed a policy on free speech without giving anyone a say. No free speech about a free speech policy? I’m scratching my head over this one.”
RM Kennedy, OPSEU College Faculty Executive Chair, said “They’re undermining the academic credibility of the colleges by developing this policy without full stakeholder representation. This incident highlights the need for collegial governance, so that faculty and students are guaranteed a role in academic decision-making.”
BUT WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
To a degree, however, the government, the colleges’ administrations, and the union are talking about two different things here.
It is our impression (perhaps debatable) that the “Tory topic” is not so much about the lecturing that takes place from day to day in classrooms as part of the regular academic process of disseminating knowledge and theories. That constitutes the somewhat separate topic of “academic freedom” – which is covered by separate policies at each school, and was (as might be remembered) an issue during the heated faculty contract talks that led to a five-weeks-long strike at the colleges in the fall of 2017.
We contend that the Conservative government’s edict, and the subsequently developed policy, may address in-class, information-presenting academic freedom – but only to a degree …
… But, moreso and more directly, the new policy aims to address incidents of guest-speaker advocacy – say, for instance, if a speaker was invited to campus to discuss a “hot button” issue such as abortion …
… And the focus of the new policy is not so much about how free speech impacts faculty members or other college employees; but, moreso, about how students respond to potentially contentious presentations and debates.
Responding to OPSEU’s complaints about the policy’s development, Colleges Ontario President Linda Franklin answered a Scene email by stating, “This new policy was developed by a task force that included vice-presidents and other senior leaders representing a broad range of perspectives, including academics and student services. There was also collaboration with legal experts and a representative for the students.”
Franklin added, “Our policy is primarily based on the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression, which is an ideal model for promoting open discussion.”
That document is reprinted below – and, again, the University of Chicago developed its policy chiefly in response to the scenario of guest-speakers-on-campus, rather than as an academic freedom guideline pertaining to the day-to-day lecturing by professors.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRINCIPLES
The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago was appointed in July 2014 by President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs, “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The Committee’s charge was to draft a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”
The Committee has carefully reviewed the University’s history, examined events at other institutions, and consulted a broad range of individuals both inside and outside the University. This statement reflects the long-standing and distinctive values of the University of Chicago and affirms the importance of maintaining and, indeed, celebrating those values for the future.
From its very founding, the University of Chicago has dedicated itself to the preservation and celebration of the freedom of expression as an essential element of the University’s culture. In 1902, in his address marking the University’s decennial, President William Rainey Harper declared that “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago”, and that “this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called in question.”
Thirty years later, a student organization invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, President Robert M. Hutchins responded that “our students … should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He insisted that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.” On a later occasion, Hutchins added that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.”
In 1968, at another time of great turmoil in universities, President Edward H. Levi, in his inaugural address, celebrated “those virtues which from the beginning and until now have characterized our institution.” Central to the values of the University of Chicago, Levi explained, is a profound commitment to “freedom of inquiry.” This freedom, he proclaimed, “is our inheritance.”
More recently, President Hanna Holborn Gray observed that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”
The words of Harper, Hutchins, Levi, and Gray capture both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago. Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”
Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But 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 the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.
The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. 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, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.
As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of our University’s greatness. That is our inheritance, and it is our promise to the future.