Why the government’s campus free-speech policy is making universities nervous

By Steve Paikin - Published on March 4, 2019
University of Toronto professor and public speaker Jordan Peterson
Controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson delivers a lecture in Helsinki. (Mikko Stig / Lehtikuva/CP)

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You could forgive Ontario universities for feeling a little picked-on by the new provincial government.

First, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives mandated a 10 per cent tuition reduction, depriving post-secondary institutions of hundreds of millions of dollars that they’d been counting on to help provide services for students.

Then there was the added burden that, going forward, many once-compulsory ancillary fees would become optional: campus newspapers, radio stations, film clubs, and other institutions are rightly wondering whether they’ll be able to survive if only the students that use their services support them financially.

The government’s position is that dynamic university leaders will figure out how to implement the revenue cuts without sacrificing services.

Now, administrators are having to get their heads around the new government-mandated “freedom of speech” rules that came into effect on New Year’s Day.

The Tories have been trying to get Ontario universities to stiffen their collective spine when it comes to controversial speakers on campus. On rare occasions, protestors have tried to shout down those speakers, which has resulted either in significant security costs for the universities or in the cancellation of the events. Typically, it’s speakers from the conservative side of the political spectrum who get shouted down by liberal crowds.

You may be wondering why no student organization has yet taken a university to court, making a Charter case for a speaker’s right to free speech. The reason is that universities may be funded by the government, but they’re not the government. Citizens can use the Charter only to ensure that the government doesn’t tread on their rights — so the Charter hasn’t come into play.

Until now.

Some universities are concerned that the new campus freedom-of-speech policy will lead to Charter challenges going forward: students may claim that a speaker’s free-speech rights have been violated by protesters and, ultimately, by their university’s administration. The province has also threatened universities with unspecified funding cuts should they fail to adhere to the new freedom-of-speech policy.

“Even if the Charter challenges are unsuccessful, it could cost millions for us to defend ourselves,” says one university rep, who asked not to be named.

Barry Craig, president of Huron University, a small liberal-arts institution in London, says, “Of course, we are obliged to respect freedom of expression to the full extent envisioned by the Charter. However, we defend this right not merely because it is an obligation under law, but because it is the very foundation of the free and open inquiry that is the raison d’etre of our form of education.”

Craig confirms that his university has never had to cancel a controversial speaker’s event due to fears of protest or violence.

“And I would go out of my way to avoid ever doing that,” he adds. “Sure, it’s a pain in the ass — but letting mobs shout down whoever they disagree with has seldom led to good things.”

That’s precisely what happened two years ago at McMaster University, when controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson tried to speak at the Hamilton institution. The protesters managed to shout down his planned classroom talk. When Peterson went outdoors and tried to hold court there, the protesters continued to dog him with chants of “No platform for bigots!” and “Transphobic piece of shit!” The demonstrators were protesting Peterson’s refusal to use people’s preferred pronouns.

Peterson eventually did speak to a smaller group of students outdoors, but he had to shout just to be heard over the chants of the protesters, one of whom had a megaphone.

Veteran criminal-defence lawyer William Trudell says, “You are right about the cost and energy and reputational damage of litigation.” But he adds that one possible way universities could avoid these difficulties would be to create a review committee for speakers. The committee could comprise faculty, students, a lawyer, an informed outside representative, and the administration.

Those who make the committee’s cut would enjoy the support of the university. That would ensure a safe and secure setting for the speaker and for those attending the speaker’s event.

But until all these problems get worked out, universities will likely continue to feel concerned about their security — and their bottom lines.

(Full disclosure: Since 2013, I’ve held the volunteer position of chancellor of Laurentian University, in Sudbury.)

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Jordan Peterson had been shouted down at Mohawk College; in fact, it was at McMaster University. TVO.org regrets the error.

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