The First Threat of Campus Free Speech Legislation in Ontario

A few weeks ago, we briefly considered campus free speech legislation, which has emerged as a political strategy in the U.K. and some U.S. states. Such legislation seeks to tie post-secondary funding to free speech, and in particular to whether or not controversial speakers are permitted to speak on campus. As we reported, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has launched a campaign to fight campus free speech legislation because it violates academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Last year, the first prospect of campus free speech legislation in Canada was raised by federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who threatened to tie federal research funding to free speech on campus. However, the threat was pretty weak because Scheer doesn’t have imminent prospect for election, and because post-secondary funding in Canada is provincial, not federal.

Yesterday, the first serious threat of this kind occurred in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario. Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, thought by many to be likely to win the province’s next election in June, announced three new platform planks about education in the province. Speaking at a campaign event yesterday, Ford said, “We’re going to fix the education [system] in Ontario by getting back to the basics, by respecting parents and by respecting free speech at universities.”

While Ford’s remarks were thin on details about how his government would respect free speech at universities, a spokesperson for his campaign suggested that Ontario’s higher ed watchdog, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) might be tasked with monitoring campus free speech.

Here is AAUP’s useful toolkit to better understand and respond to campus free speech legislation. If you are a member of an Ontario university and want to defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy against this latest salvo, you would do well to bone up. …and if you’re eligible to vote in Ontario’s June 7 election, make this a ballot issue.

A middle aged white man with a broad face and fair hair brushed back from his face looks straight ahead, smiling slightly. He is wearing a suit and tie.
Doug Ford says his party will defend free speech at Ontario universities. By Doug Ford [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons