BY MICHELLE BILTON
Publicly funded Ontario post-secondary institutions have implemented a province-wide Freedom of Speech policy based on the government’s mandatory Jan. 1 deadline.
“The new Freedom of Speech policy codifies the existing practice at Sheridan of respectful discourse, professionalism, civility and a commitment to freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas,” says Christine Szustaczek, chief communications officer at Sheridan. It aims to promote free speech and prevent any form of hate speech.
The policy addresses protests and debates against controversial, right-wing figureheads throughout university and college campuses. A well-known debate over free speech involved Lindsay Shepherd, a Wilfrid Laurier University graduate and teaching assistant, who was penalized after showing her students a video of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who gained notoriety for his open rejection of gender-neutral pronouns. According to Rebecca Bozzato, press secretary and communications advisor for Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton, they can’t comment on any connection the policy has to any previous incidents.
The policy will follow the lead of the University of Chicago’s Statement of Principles on Free Expression, says Szustaczek. It will apply to all employees, students, guests and anyone present at Sheridan. Also, the policy doesn’t discount free speech in a digital age, social media is included.
It’s the individual’s responsibility to know the law, and when they’re breaking it. “Speech that violates the law, including the Ontario Human Rights Code, is not allowed,” says Szustaczek. “Hate speech includes intimidation or threats against a person or group based on colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation, gender, or physical and mental disabilities.”
One of the most notable elements of this policy is that the college is not obliged to protect members of their community from viewpoints they consider offensive. “All members of a post-secondary community have the right to express dissenting opinions, as well as the right to criticize and contest ideas they disagree with. However, while people are contesting the ideas they disagree with they cannot break the law or obstruct the freedom of speech of their peers,” says Bozzato. She adds that schools are expected to ensure this happens, or they could face financial consequences.
Institutions will be monitored on their progress throughout this month, then till Sept. 1 when an annual report will be submitted to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a public report will follow. If they fail to comply, they’ll face funding cuts.
“Based on the Higher Education Quality Council’s determination, if the institution has not properly implemented or complied with its free speech policy, the Ministry could reduce that institution’s operating grant funding. Operating grant funding will be reduced by an amount determined by the Ministry based on the severity of non-compliance,” says Bozzato.
The Council will review the nature of complaints made to determine the level of non-cooperation and the Ontario Ombudsman can launch an investigation if someone’s rights were infringed upon under the free speech policy. Recommendations will be made to the institution if the policy wasn’t followed, according to Bozzato.
Under the new policy, it’s not all about what you can say, where and when you say it matters too. “Open discussion includes debates, meetings, rallies and protests. These activities are permitted so long as they do not interfere with normal college operations or activities or endanger the safety of others,” says Szustaczek. Sheridan has the right to shut down any event if it breaks the rules.
The PC government promised a new free speech policy for post-secondary institutions during the election, and this policy delivers on that promise, according to Bozzato. “The policy ensures that there is a minimum standard consistent across all post-secondary institutions,” she says.
Szustaczek notes that Freedom of Expression is vital to a learning environment and that this policy will protect the open exchange of ideas.
“Sheridan believes that teaching students to be engaged and active citizens and to think critically and use good judgment are important personal and professional skills that will serve them well,” she says.