Ontario Government Blocks Academic Freedom, Collegial Governance, and Institutional Autonomy in the Name of Free Speech

Ontario’s recently elected Progressive Conservative Government has just announced (see here and here) the enactment of the new campus free speech rules that it vaguely threatened/promised during the election campaign.

As far as I know, this makes Ontario the first Canadian jurisdiction with a version of the Goldwater Institute-inspired campus free speech laws that have been passed in Missouri, Arizona, Virginia, Utah, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, introduced in a number of other states, and sometimes threatened in the U.K.

I blogged earlier this year about a campaign by the American Association of University Professors against campus free speech legislation. On the AAUP’s account,

“Campus free-speech” legislation, increasingly prevalent in state legislatures, is a solution in search of a problem. Threats to free speech on campus have received outsized media attention in relation to issues with more widespread incidence and deleterious effects, such as diminished public funding of higher education, the adjunctification of the faculty, and a student debt crisis. One thing is clear: bills purporting to protect free speech on campus have become a popular method for legislatures to interfere with and undermine the institutional autonomy of public colleges and universities.

During the election campaign, the Conservatives were very foggy on the details of what they intended. The details came out today and they are chilling.

The new policy gives every publicly-assisted college and university in the province four months to produce a campus free speech policy, which must minimally include the following (all directly quoted from the Ministry’s backgrounder):

  • A definition of freedom of speech
  • Principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression:
    • Universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry.
    • The university/college should not attempt to shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.
    • While members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views.
    • Speech that violates the law is not allowed.
  • That existing student discipline measures apply to students whose actions are contrary to the policy (e.g., ongoing disruptive protesting that significantly interferes with the ability of an event to proceed).
  • That institutions consider official student groups’ compliance with the policy as condition for ongoing financial support or recognition, and encourage student unions to adopt policies that align with the free speech policy.
  • That the college/university uses existing mechanisms to handle complaints and ensure compliance. Complaints against an institution that remain unresolved may be referred to the Ontario Ombudsman.

Institutions will be subject to ongoing monitoring for compliance, and…

If institutions fail to comply with government requirements to introduce and report on free speech policies, or if they fail to follow their own policies once implemented, the ministry may respond with reductions to their operating grant funding, proportional to the severity of non-compliance.

This policy is a massive assault on academic freedom, collegial governance and institutional autonomy.

Particularly appalling is the province’s imposition on Ontario institutions of the Chicago Principles, an approach to freedom of expression developed in a private U.S. university. To impose the Chicago Principles on Ontario colleges and universities is to disregard important differences between Canada and the U.S. and between private and public institutions. It is also to make Ontario university senates subordinate to an American committee. (The Chicago Principles were developed by Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression.) This move circumvents collegial governance (See here and numerous other posts on this blog for the important connection between collegial governance and academic freedom.) and substantially undercuts the institutional autonomy of Ontario institutions.[1]

It is also really appalling that the Ministry is blackmailing universities to discipline their students and student groups via the threat of withholding institutional funding.

I’m on vacation, and should be enjoying the seashore with my significant-other right now. (Seriously. He is right now drinking a beer and watching seals play outside our hotel window. I, on the other hand, am typing this.) So, I haven’t yet had the chance to dig into all the details about the government’s announcement, but here are some initial thoughts about how we should respond:

  1. Read the AAUP’s backgrounder on campus free speech legislation and its toolkit on how to fight such legislation.
  2. If you are in Ontario, contact your MPP and raise the AAUP’s talking points with them. Make clear that campus free speech legislation is a politically motivated solution in search of a problem and that it unacceptably interferes with academic freedom, collegial governance, and institutional autonomy.
  3. If you are an Ontario academic, contact your faculty association, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, or (for college faculty) the Ontario Public Service Employees Union  to urge them to take action and to find out how to help. If you are a student an at Ontario college or university, contact your local, provincial, and federal (here and here) student associations. Non-faculty staff members should likewise contact their associations and unions. And faculty, staff and students from outside of Ontario should contact their own associations to try to drum up for solidarity of Ontario college and university personnel.
  4. If you work or go to school at, or are an alumnus/a of, an Ontario post-secondary institution, contact your institution’s secretariat, Senate, Vice-President Academic, and similar (different institutions have different go-to folks for matters like this) to express your concern and to make clear how important it is the the institution not sacrifice its guiding principles to this politicized attack.
  5. College and university administrators and employee associations should be consulting lawyers as soon as possible to sort out whether a the new policy actually has any teeth. It is a policy, issued by the Ministry, not a legislation enacted by provincial Parliament. I do not know whether the Ministry actually has the power to enact such a dramatic policy without legislative support. We need lots of lawyers sorting out whether this thing has legs. And, institutions and their employee associations should be starting to prepare to launch Charter challenges in defense of their institutional autonomy and in defense of their students.
  6. Tenured professors should get ready to use their (our!) considerable power and safety to engage in front-line resistance. The policy talks about student disruptions, but seems to be silent on disruptions by faculty members. That means it’s time for faculty members to make some noise. The usual suspects will pretty soon start organizing appalling speaking events on Ontario campuses to test the new policy. If students can’t be disruptive when White nationalists (etc.) show up, then those of us with tenure need to be out there making some noise.
  7. Faculty associations and other employee associations and unions need to keep close tabs on how their institutions are developing the new policies. Insofar as they manifestly affect employee terms and conditions of employment, employee groups need to be centrally involved in the drafting process, and need to use their muscle at the bargaining table to reduce the harm attendant upon the new provincial policy

Look, this policy is actually probably pretty easy to minimally satisfy, and the Ministry (and other) employees tasked with dealing  with it probably don’t actually care that much about how assiduously the policy is followed. This is likely all political window-dressing and myth-making — a right-wing government making a symbolic gesture, and likely not caring too much about how it all plays out on the ground. But the precedent is extraordinarily harmful, and (as I noted) may be exploited by bad actors outside of the government to substantially impede some of the core principles on which our post-secondary institutions are based.

Roll your sleeves up, Ontario. We have a fight ahead of us.


[1] A note for the many Ontario academics who like the Chicago Principles. Even if you think your college or university should adopt the Chicago Principles, you should want that to be a collegial decision within your institution, not an imposition from above. Make the case to your colleagues about why the Chicago Principles are right for your college or university, and work to enact them within your own collegial governance structures, as you do all other important academic matters. Academic policy should be set by scholars for scholarly reasons, not by bureaucrats for purely political reasons. If the Chicago Principles are the right choice for your institution, then they need not be imposed from without by means of threats.