Worries, praise follow Ontario government's new free speech directive

Universities and colleges in Ottawa say they plan to work with the Ontario government to meet next year's deadline for crafting free speech policies, while campus groups are both lauding and worrying about the new directive.

Local universities and colleges plan to meet PC government's 2019 deadline

The Ontario government announced last week that schools have until Jan. 1, 2019 to develop, implement and comply with free speech policies that meet a minimum standard the government sets — or risk losing funding. (Shutterstock/shutteratakan)

Universities and colleges in Ottawa say they'll work with the Ontario government to meet next year's deadline for crafting free speech policies, as campus groups both laud and worry about the new directive.

The province announced last week that schools have until Jan. 1, 2019 to develop, implement and comply with policies that meet a minimum standard the government sets — or risk losing funding. 

That standard is based on the University of Chicago Statement of Principles of Free Expression, which doesn't allow for hate speech but precludes shielding students from ideas they might disagree with or find offensive.

Elijah Bedassie is welcoming the policy shift.

I think that if they have to threaten them with pulling funding, then that's what needs to be done.- Elijah Bedassie, uOttawa Students for Free Speech

The founder and president of the uOttawa Students for Free Speech was part of a round table discussion on the state of free speech with Premier Doug Ford and Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities, the same day the announcement was made.

Bedassie said many universities have problematic policies around free speech, pointing to the controversy around Wilfred Laurier University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd being disciplined for showing a TVO clip of a controversial professor talking about gender-neutral pronouns.

He said he's also seen a troubling trend of universities banning controversial speakers or groups.

"Universities are really going to have to make big changes if they want to stop this problem now. And I think that if they have to threaten them with pulling funding, then that's what needs to be done." 

Bedassie suggested it's not up to a university to limit controversial topics, as long as they don't border on hate speech or incite violence.

"There certainly are people who are going to want to try to start hateful lectures on campus. And I mean, those are going to have to be dealt with on an individual basis," he said.

"We have a human rights commission and set of laws to deal with those sort of things."

Worries around hate speech

There are fears, however, that the Progressive Conservative government's new directive could blur the line between free speech and hate speech.

"There's a limit as to where healthy debate becomes a little bit of an issue. Because as we've seen in the past, some of these things have led to students feeling unsafe, students feeling like they were targeted or hated," said David Oladejo, president of Carleton University Students' Association.

"Where do we draw the line and say, OK, this is allowed, but this isn't?"

David Oladejo, president of the Carleton University Students' Association, said he welcomes clarification around the university's free speech policies — as long as they don't lead to students feeling unsafe. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Oladejo said he welcomes clarification on university free speech policies, as long as they're not vaguely worded and students don't feel unsafe on campus.

He said he doesn't believe there have been any incidents in recent years in which Carleton students have felt threatened by either groups or guest lecturers.​

Carleton, Algonquin vow to meet deadline

At Ottawa's Algonquin College, administrators have "always encouraged free speech," said president Cheryl Jensen.

Jensen said the college already has various policies in place to protect the rights of both students and guest lecturers to speaking freely.

She expected the college's new policy would offer clearer language and directions, and said she's not worried about meeting the Jan. 1 deadline or having funding pulled.

Algonquin College President Cheryl Jensen says the college is prepared to meet the province's deadline for a free speech policy. (Roger Dubois/CBC)

Carleton University is taking a similar approach to the policy requirement.

"Universities and societies thrive when ideas are expressed openly and debated vigorously and respectfully," the university wrote in a statement to CBC News.

"In line with the recent [Council of Ontario Universities] statement on behalf of all Ontario universities, Carleton will work with government and other stakeholders to ensure that freedom of expression remains alive and healthy on campus and in Ontario."

The University of Ottawa did not provide a statement by the time of publication.