The Tories say they want to protect free speech on campus — their policies suggest otherwise

OPINION: Campus media outlets are vehicles for free expression, something Doug Ford says he wants to defend. But his government’s new education-funding framework threatens their very existence, writes H.G. Watson
By H.G. Watson - Published on January 24, 2019
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The Varsity, founded in 1880, is the University of Toronto’s award-winning student newspaper. (The Varsity/Varsity Publications Inc/facebook.com)

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During the 2018 election campaign, Doug Ford made a bold promise to protect free speech on university campuses. “We will ensure that publicly funded universities defend free speech for everybody,” Ford said at a campaign event in May 2018. Schools, he said, were placing too many limits on free speech.

In August 2018, Ford, by then Ontario’s premier, followed through on that promise: according to a directive from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, all post-secondary institutions had to introduce free-speech policies by January 1, 2019 — or face funding cuts.

Last week, the Progressive Conservatives announced another big change: a 10 per cent tuition reduction and the option for students to opt out of so-called non-essential fees, which include the levies that support many student newspapers and campus radio stations — important vehicles for free speech.

A reduction in student-generated revenue would come as a major blow to publications such as the Varsity, an award-winning University of Toronto newspaper that has a weekly circulation of 18,000 and has been around since 1880.

“The money we get from a student levy is instrumental for us to be able to not only produce and distribute a newspaper but also fairly pay the people that work for us,” says Jack O. Denton, the paper’s editor-in-chief. Revenue from student fees, he notes, accounts for the majority of its yearly budget and covers the salaries of 27 part-time employees and Denton himself, who is the sole full-time staffer during the school year.

Or take the example of CJRU, Ryerson University’s campus radio station: funded by a levy that students voted to adopt in 2011, it began as an online-only outlet two years later. In 2014, the station was granted an AM-radio licence — something that CJRU’s general manager, Jacky Tuinstra Harrison, says could not have happened without the levy: “It is impossible to get a radio licence without financials. I would say it was everything to be able to show the CRTC a document that said the students have voted in favour of this fee, and the university has agreed to administer this fee.”

Stephanie Rea, communications director for Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, said in an email to TVO.org that “post-secondary students are capable adults who deserve the right to decide what initiatives and services they wish to support.” She added that all student organizations will remain protected by the Ontario Campus Free Speech Policy.

But it is difficult to reconcile the government’s ostensible support of free speech with its opt-out policy, which will imperil many of the organizations responsible for essential journalism on campus. Student newspapers and radio stations across Ontario do crucial work holding student unions, university administrators, and other authorities to account. Last year, for example, Western University’s Gazette investigated allegations of “troubling practices” at a chiropractic clinic that was leasing space on campus from the University Students’ Council. The Varsity recently broke the story that U of T students in the Muslim Students Association had been the subject of surprise visits from RCMP and CSIS officers for three years.

“That [the Tories’ funding policy] was done with little consultation with students is further proof that the Ford government does not truly have the interests of students in mind,” wrote Emma McPhee, vice-president of the Canadian University Press, in a statement released last week. “This decision is a direct hit to institutional transparency, healthy democratic dialogue on campuses, freedom of the press and the free speech that the Ford government claims so strongly to defend.”

It is up to the universities to decide what constitutes an essential service. According to Rea, the ministry, for its part, describes essential services as those that “support student health and safety and important student experience initiatives; support institutions in providing critical campus-wide services and activities which are integral; support major projects the institution may be undergoing and service a business need.”

Rea added, “We expect institutions to implement the classification system, keeping with the spirit of the policy to provide students a choice in which ancillary fees they pay.”           

Denton hopes that U of T’s administration will deem the Varsity an essential service, which would mean that students would not be able to opt out of funding it. (Elizabeth Church, a spokesperson for U of T, stated in an email to TVO.org that the school is working to determine what impact the government’s announced changes will have and to establish next steps.) But he cautions that “the fact that colleges and universities are now in the position of power to decide whether or not what are often the only media institutions keeping them accountable ... are essential or not is problematic in and of itself.”

In the end, it may be the students themselves who end up protecting free speech on campus. After all, many of them did vote in favour of supporting these media organizations. Last year, the Varsity successfully campaigned to have its undergraduate and graduate levies raised by 80 cents. Those students have already made a democratic choice in favour of a free press.

If their newspapers and radio stations are to survive the Ford government, they may have to do so again.

H.G. Watson is an assistant editor at TVO.org and a former managing editor of J-Source. She is also a former employee and board member of Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publishing, a former employee of the University of Windsor Lance, and a former board member of CJAM, the University of Windsor’s campus radio station.

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