So What’s the Word on the Ontario Government’s So-Called Free Speech Policy?

Yesterday, the Ontario Government announced its new campus free speech policy. I wrote about it here. If you haven’t yet read and shared that post, consider doing so now. It provides useful background to the policy, and sensible actions to take in light of it.

One particularly obnoxious thing about the policy is that it threatens to withhold provincial funding from colleges and universities that don’t punish students who disrupt campus events. So far, there’s no word on what counts as disruptive for purposes of this policy. Many of the social media kerfuffles about allegedly silenced campus speakers over the past year were primarily prompted by letters or petitions objecting to campus speakers. So, one wonders whether the bar for disruption (and for disciplinary action or withdrawal of funding) is that low. Presumably paying people to drown speakers out with applause counts as disruptive? If so, this is an especially embarrassing policy from a government that has been paying people to do exactly that — to drown out reporters’ questions with applause at press conferences. One much conclude that the Ontario Government’s passion for free speech only applies outside of Queen’s Park (the Ontario legislature).

In any event, reactions to yesterday’s announcement have begun to emerge. I’ll use the rest of this post to collect and link what I’ve seen so far, with some brief glosses, and I’ll add more such material (as it emerges) in future blog posts.

Yesterday’s response by the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) really misses the mark. COU President Daniel Woolf is clear in the statement that the new campus free speech policy is a solution in search of a problem, which is good. But the headline and the remarks in the main body to the effect that universities will work with the government are too conciliatory. I understand that this public diplomacy will likely be followed by tougher backroom conversations, but there are just too many pull-quotes here that appear to support an absolutely insupportable mandate.

The statement by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) is likewise far too accepting of the government’s announcement. OUSA is quite right to insist in the statement that students need to be at the table as universities develop their required free speech policies, but it is wrong to be so accepting of the process in the first place. OUSA is like this though. It is the more strategic and diplomatic of Ontario’s two broad associations of student governments.

The Canadian Federation of Students is typically more rad and less diplomatic than their suit-and-tie-sporting rivals at OUSA. Accordingly, the CFS-Ontario statement pushes back hard on the government’s announcement (and is right to do so). However, the release is quite brief with very few details specified, suggesting that the announcement caught the CFS on its back foot.

So, what about the employee associations?

The overarching provincial and federal associations for university faculty are, respectively, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Both have good, strong, detailed responses to the free speech policy. (Extra points to the CAUT’s David Robinson for using the term “diktat” in his remarks.)

I haven’t found anything yet from OPSEU, the provincial union representing community college instructors.

In the broader media and social media world, the always wonderful Nora Loreto yesterday posted a completely on-point Twitter essay about the announcement. It’s well worth the read. Coincidentally, Loreto also published a story yesterday in the National Observer detailing some of the ways the Ontario government is chilling free speech, especially in the elementary and secondary school sector.

There are lots of provincial and national news articles about the government’s announcement. I won’t post them all here. But I link the Globe and Mail version because of the following: “Mr. Ford [the Ontario Premier] and Merrilee Fullerton, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, were not available for comment.” (Ha! It’s a shame that the government doesn’t choose to use its much-vaunted freedom of speech to communicate with the public!)

Finally, the award for the most tendentious article critical of the new policy goes to Press Progress. I mean, I find it charming (and not wrong) that the Press Progress article repeatedly characterizes the new provincial policy as “policing speech on campus.” And the snark throughout the article is well-warranted. But don’t read the article hoping to get careful detail and unvarnished truth.

I’m going to take the weekend off, but I’ll have more to say here about the new policy next week.