The University of Western Ontario just released the first draft of a free speech policy created by the institution’s Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression.
Western is one of the first universities to prepare such a policy in response to the provincial government’s mandate that all post-secondary schools in the province institute free speech policies by January 1st, 2019. Schools that fail to meet the requirements, which include reporting on the policy’s progress, would risk losing public funding.
Freedom of expression is in the students’ primary interest
It’s a sad state of affairs when the government has to intervene to ensure that the open pursuit of ideas is protected in places of higher learning. Ideally, students themselves would have had the initiative to urge their unions to advocate for freedom of expression, which is in the student’s primary interest.
However, money talks and when public funds are in jeopardy, universities are the first to bend over.
“Freedom of expression is essential to the pursuit of truth, the advancement of learning and the dissemination of knowledge. All members of the University community have the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to examine, question, advocate for and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine,” states the document.
Consultations betray a desire to shed responsibility
According to the university website, the committee undertook Campus Community Consultations Sessions in early October to involve students and faculty in the policy-making process.
This is a noble gesture but it underlies a lack of willingness to make hard policy decisions on the part of the administration and an infantile desire for approval. University administrators seek to please all parties but in doing so end up pleasing nobody.
Take the case of Wilfrid Laurier University’s President Deborah MacLatchy. In her effort to please all parties involved in Laurier’s own free speech battle ended up creating more problems than solutions.
Safe spaces must go
While Western University’s policy promises it is a place where “challenge and disagreement should be expected, and controversial and offensive ideas may be advanced” it also makes a commitment to continue coddling students “who are negatively affected by the exercise of free expression”.
Universities need to stop being safe spaces and “supportive environments” and instead focus on preparing students for the realities of life as an adult.
After similar consultations, but before Doug Ford’s ultimatum, WLU released its own Statement on Freedom of Expression in May 2018. In a likewise fashion it made claims that “Laurier recognizes that at times free expression may harm and/or further marginalize community members from visible and invisible minority groups”.
The politicization of universities is a necessary step for open discourse
Students coddled for four years by a figurative bubble wrap will come out of university expecting the same treatment from their government. In some ways Doug Ford’s intervention, however necessary, feeds into this paternal expectation of authority.
Universities are becoming politicized again and this is a good thing. Historically, higher education was a means to prepare individuals for political life. Although mixing education and politics might be unsavory to some, it is a necessary step for the creation of responsible and informed citizens.
Laurier and Western want to have their cake and eat it too. In their world view, everybody exists in bubbles. For them, universities must accommodate spaces for those who can handle free speech and those who can’t. Yet it doesn’t work that way, we can’t have both.