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Doug Ford tells post-secondary schools to implement free speech policy or risk losing public funding

An Ontario government mandate was released by the Office of the Premier on Thursday which requires universities to “develop, implement and comply with” a free speech policy, or risk a reduction in operating grant funding.

By January 1st, publicly assisted universities and colleges must develop and make publicly available a policy on free speech which abides by minimum government standards. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) will be responsible for reviewing each policy ensuring that minimum requirements are met.

Minimum requirements for a free speech policy

The government mandate requires that all policies include the following requirements:

  • A definition of freedom of speech
  • Principles modeled on the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression
  • That disciplinary measures are in place to deal with students who disobey the policy
  • Institutions consider their funding for student groups and unions based on compliance with the policy
  • Colleges/universities are required to have a system in place to deal with free speech infringements by staff, faculty, students, administrators and guests

Starting in the Fall 2019 term, it will be the responsibility of universities and colleges to prepare annual reports on the progress of their policies which will then be reviewed by HEQCO. Non-compliance to these terms will result in potential loss of public funding for the infringing institutions based on the gravity of their failure to comply.

“Open debate and exchange of ideas are central to university and college education. Today’s announcement will help protect free speech and foster learning environments that encourage freedom of thought, by making sure that all universities and colleges have a strong, clear and consistent free speech policy. We look forward to working with Ontario’s universities and colleges to protect and promote free speech,” said Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.

University operating grants are at risk

Operating grants are awarded to post-secondary education institutions by the provincial government to help aid in enrolment growth. A report (PDF) published by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities states that Ontario post-secondary schools received $2.6 billion in government funding. Based on the sheer sum of that number, universities that are cut off from provincial support will undoubtedly suffer.

In the 2015-16 school year, Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) received $5,282 per student of government funding based on the report. The campus free speech debate centered on WLU after one of their TA’s Lindsay Shepherd was reprimanded for playing a TVO episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin that debated the use of gendered pronouns. While the President of the university has offered an apology to Ms. Shepherd and drafted a “Statement on Freedom of Expression”, issues around student protesting and speaker cancellations continue to plague the university. It is likely that the Wilfrid Laurier situation inspired some of the requirements in the provincial government’s mandate as the aforementioned “Chicago Principles” were also presented to the WLU president in November when the free speech debacle first emerged.

Ford calls the state of free speech in Ontario “absolutely shocking”

Premier Doug Ford addressed the decision in a segment by Ontario News Now, a media channel implemented to bring attention to the Ford government’s policy achievements. “Students will have open and free speech,” said Doug Ford, “They aren’t going to be shut down by the special interest groups or the universities.”

“When I travelled around this province, all I heard was how free speech is being stifled. It is shocking what I heard out there, absolutely shocking” the Premier went on to say.

Individual universities have yet to respond to the government mandate and it remains to be seen how effectively the minimum requirements will be enforced. Worries still remain about students, who openly express themselves to be opponents of free speech and whether the federal government has any power to curb the silencing that continues to take place on campuses across Ontario.

Cosmin Dzsurdzsa

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Cosmin Dzsurdzsa
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