By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Post-secondary institutions have until the end of this year to develop policies tied to protecting free speech.
Premier Doug Ford announced these policies are to be in place by Jan. 1, 2019.
A statement from his office says the policies will “not only protect free speech but ensure that hate speech, discrimination and other illegal forms of speech are not allowed on campus.”
Ford had promised to tie funding for postsecondary institutes to free speech during his campaign for office.
Colleges and universities that do not comply could face funding reductions.
Students who go against the policies could experience disciplinary action as well.
Starting next September, post-secondary schools will need to prepare annual reports on compliance for review the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Meri-Kim Oliver, vice-president of student affairs at Durham College, says they weren’t necessarily surprised by the announcement.
“We weren’t expecting it per say. We had heard different during the campaign, but didn’t know where they would go,” she says.
However, Oliver says it is clear what the expectations from the province are.
“The key is going to be finding some balance. The challenge is going to be bringing all those pieces together,” she adds.
Oliver says it is rare for the government to hand down such general direction.
“Policies are usually internal to the campus. It’s a bit unusual. The last example would have been the sexual violence policy that was required of all institutions.”
At this point, Durham College does not have a general policy on free speech in place, as Oliver says they typically have discussions as “individual circumstances arise.”
With the school year only just starting, and fourth months to go before the policy needs to be in place, she admits the timing will be tricky.
“It is a challenge to do the level of consultation needed. We’ll have to really focus on getting as much input as we can in the timeframe they’ve left us,” Oliver says. “It’s a short time for a policy that could have major ramifications.”
The University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) also does not have a policy specific to free speech in place, but president Dr. Stephen Murphy says it is something they are very aware of.
While Murphy says some may challenge the legitimacy of the need for a specific policy, he believes it will serve to continue on the work the university has been doing for years.
The standards set out by the Ford government embrace the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression.
These principles promote the ideals of not allowing hate speech but not shielding students from messages or opinions they may disagree with or find offensive.
Some groups, like the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario branch, have spoken out against Ford’s plans.
Murphy says while he can understand some of the concerns, he feels much about the discussion on social media has been “skewed” and is inaccurate.
“To simply say free speech is under attack at universities is not true,” he says.
Ultimately, Murphy says universities are funded by the province and with that comes a level of accountability.
“As a publicly-funded institution, it’s understandable the province would want to see value for money,” he says.
He says if a university or college is truly unhappy with the expectations, they could become a private institution, but he does not perceive that as a possibility.
With only a few weeks to decipher everything, Oliver says it is unclear at this point how funding penalties will work.
“Is it if there is an incident? Is it how the campus responds? she says.
Both Oliver and Murphy said there have not been any recent controversial incidents at either campus.
A now-defunct joint student association that represented both schools had to apologize to a Hasbara Fellowships, a pro-Israeli organization last year after denying it a table at a social justice fair in 2016.
The same organization was found not to have been wrong in turning down official campus club status to a pro-life group in 2015.
Free speech on college and university campuses became a heavily discussed issue after a number of high-profile incidents.
One example was Wilfrid Laurier University officials apologized to a teaching assistant after she was disciplined for playing a clip of controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s arguments against the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has said in the past that universities should lose their federal funding if they fail to protect free speech.