More Accountability Will Stop Admins and Student Unions From Killing Free Speech on Campus

If the Premier is serious about re-establishing a foundation of free speech in Canadian schools, there must be a radical change in the model of governance of student unions, such as moving towards a student governance model that is an extension of the administration rather than independent of it


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National Campus Life Network is a pro-life organisation that has helped hundreds of students over 20 years navigate campus free speech battles in Canadian universities. The policy suggestion by the Ford government is a step in the right direction, however, it may fall short in addressing some fundamental issues.

A Good Start

In what appears to be one of the most confounding juxtapositions in North American culture, the provincial and federal government must force a place designed to “promote the advancement of learning and dissemination of knowledge” to actually promote the advancement of learning and dissemination of knowledge.

The Ford government’s free speech policy announcement to restrict funding to universities whose actions contravene basic free speech principles was a welcome breath of fresh air to many Canadians—and rightly so. In the past ten years the threat of penalty for speaking your mind on campus has increased drastically.

This was most poignantly seen in the dramatic showdown between Lindsay Shepherd and Wilfrid Laurier University. The fact that a student must record their professor discriminating against them in order to have any kind of power to effect change speaks volumes to the mess free speech has become, not only in our universities but also in our country.

Even our own Prime Minister censored and restricted funding to any organization that doesn’t agree with his personal principles, yet those organizations have very little power to affect change. Their only recourse is to potentially sue the government, but that may not end favorably. If this sounds familiar it’s because this is the same story we have heard countless times on a university campuses where funding and recognition is stripped from those who have pro-life ideologies, with few means of fighting back other than ill-fated court cases.

In his policy press release, the Premier’s office cited the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression repeatedly as one of the major reference points it will use to ensure that freedom of expression is protected in Canadian universities. It is heartening to see a Premier aware and dedicated to serving Canadians. For too long, Canadian university students have been treated like second class citizens on their own campuses.

Room For Improvement

However, I must point out that the promises and commitments expressed in the Premier’s proposal have some serious potential gaps. The provincial or federal government must install standards and accountability measures to hold universities accountable in a way that address the true roots of the problem.

First of all, the government must prevent universities from arbitrarily discriminating against their own students. In Ontario, the courts have ruled that Charter does not apply to university campuses. This legal reality has become an anti-free speech weapon for administrations and student unions alike (more on the latter group later). They have interpreted this legal reality to mean that they may discipline, impose, and discriminate in whatever manner they like because they can do so without penalty. But even when a private business discriminates against an employee, there are still legal mechanisms to hold that business accountable for their actions. In contrast, there are currently very few ways to hold universities accountable under the law.

Keep in mind also the nature and purpose of a university. If someone starts spouting controversial views inside of your house and you tell them to shut up or get out, that makes perfect sense, because your home is a personal space, not a space for debate and discussion. The reason this same behavior is not acceptable at a university is because debate and discussion are the reasons that universities exist. Furthermore, it’s downright hypocritical for universities to take government money meant to promote education and then screw education over by suppressing the marketplace of ideas.

I am not sure if the Premier is aware, but most schools in Canada have a statement of free speech and expression already on the books, albeit imperfect ones. Oftentimes the official policies are not the primary issue, it is a lack of consistent application. When I was a student at Carleton University, I would often quote the student handbook to the administration, professors and student union in defense of my rights, only for them to ignore their own rules and curtail my speech anyways.

Another problem is that even when universities enforce their own policies, they are often riddled with subjective and ambiguous language. Students and student groups across Ontario have been penalized or suppressed for being “offensive,” “triggering,” promoting “hate speech,” or not being “inclusive” enough. More often than not, these terms are not clearly defined, they are simply used to suppress any controversial opinion that a university bureaucrat finds distasteful.

The Problem Of Student Unions

Premier’s policy also fails to address the particular embarrassment that university student unions have become. This is perhaps one of the largest gaps in the application of the Chicago principles to a Canadian context. The University of Chicago is a private institution without a separate student union. The governance of the student body is simply an extension of the administration, which gives the university control over its behaviour and allows them to ensure quality control.

Here in Canada, student unions are considered separate legal entities from the administration, who give them a cut of the profit from student tuition fees to do with as they please: a significant amount of money with extremely low accountability. This is simply a recipe for disaster and not shockingly, it has become just that. Ten years ago, it was news if a student union discriminated against their students. Now, we simply wait with popcorn.

What’s worse, virtually all internal mechanisms of representation and accountability have been completely gutted: the so-called democratic elections meant to hold these unions to account are often so unrepresentative it’s laughable. The student governance crowd on campus is usually little more than a glorified clique, with in-crowd students using their popularity and connections to rise to positions of power–and nobody gets well-connected or popular on campus by defying student union orthodoxy. Also, good luck organizing a dissenting campaign when all of the clubs, demographics, and worldviews who would otherwise support such an initiative have conveniently been banned from campus.

In cannot be overstated: student unions are the bastions of anti-free speech discrimination in Canada. They create it, enforce it, embed it in policy, defend it, and mandate it. In my ten years of either participating in or aiding students with campus-related activism, I can count on one hand the number of times an administration has directly censored its students for voicing an opinion. On the other hand, I do not have enough appendages to be able to accurately count the number of times that a student union has attempted to censor its members, especially Jewish, pro-life or pro-free speech students.

Additionally, Ontario courts have ruled in favour of student unions’ discriminatory practices, upholding their ability to govern independently. Student unions have decision-making powers to govern themselves, even if that governance is tyrannical.

Administrations have claimed on various occasions that they cannot interfere in the affairs of the student union. The glaring inconsistency to this message is that recently the administration at uOttawa stepped in to prevent a student union from fraudulent behaviour. This tells us that administrations can and could intervene, they just don’t.

Case in point: on that exact same campus, the University of Ottawa, the administration has taken no action in regards to the student union’s unilateral vote to eliminate the pro-life club on campus this past school year. While they expressed dismay over the loss of the pro-life group’s club status said they would discuss the matter with the student union, as of now nothing has actually been done. The student union has faced no consequences for using their power to actively suppress certain viewpoints on campus.

With this tyrannical behavior, student unions are undermining Canadian values and destroying our institutions of higher learning. Without accountability or oversight, they are working to actively extinguish the marketplace of ideas on university campus.

Moving Forward

If the Premier is serious about re-establishing a foundation of free speech in Canadian schools, there must be a radical change in the model of governance of student unions, such as moving towards a student governance model that is an extension of the administration rather than independent of it. Get rid of the student union, or at least restrict its near-monopolistic power over the student body. Campus administrations should be allowed to withhold funds from student unions that do not uphold free speech, and to have more ability to reform the student union system. Perhaps a new governance model would finally allow effective student representation without contravening a university’s fundamental commitment to free expression.

Our higher education institutions are the cornerstone of our society precisely because they allow us to explore, debate, study, and challenge ideas. We cannot afford to take a lackluster approach to the protection of freedom of expression on Ontario campuses. I am glad to see our government taking this issue seriously, but we have a long way to go if we’re going to effectively break up the systems of censorship that currently exist on university campus.

Ruth Shaw is the Executive Director of National Campus Life Network and an alumni from Carleton University.


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Ruth Shaw

Ruth Shaw is the Executive Director of National Campus Life Network and an alumni from Carleton University.

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