One of the fundamental functions of any university is providing a forum for debating differing points of view. Such debate can nuance our world views and correct us if we are wrong, spurring the intellectual growth that universities are meant to foster. Even though some Ontario universities do have trouble tolerating controversial viewpoints, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s recent decision to force publicly funded universities and colleges to adopt free-speech policies — or suffer funding cuts — should worry supporters of free speech.
Some Ryerson students in particular might have viewed Ford’s Aug. 30 decision as a necessary protection for free speech, given Ryerson’s censorious tendencies. In August 2017, Ryerson cancelled a panel called “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses.” In 2014, Ryerson charged a men’s issues awareness organization a $1,600 security fee to host a talk on campus. Then-president of Ryerson, Sheldon Levy, later dismissed the fee as an obstruction of free expression. The Ryerson Students’ Union has also denied club status to student groups that are pro-life or raise awareness about men’s issues. Ryerson students who feel silenced might celebrate free speech policies that ensure students won’t be shielded from offensive views and that encourage student unions to also support free speech.
But Ford’s own track record of vowing to undermine basic Canadian civil liberties reveals that this free speech policy is a hypocritical ploy to please conservatives appalled at recent disruptions and cancellations of campus events that challenged progressive beliefs. And this hypocrisy risks eroding widespread support for free speech. If Ford cared about free speech, he would not invoke the constitutional “notwithstanding” clause to override a judge’s ruling that forbids him from infringing upon the freedom of expression of candidates in Toronto’s upcoming election. Nor would he have tweeted in June that he will ban the annual anti-Israel al-Quds Day rally. If he valued Ontarians’ basic rights and freedoms, he would not plan on creating “legal SWAT teams” of prosecutors devoted to preventing suspects of gun crimes in Toronto from receiving bail — a pledge that takes direct aim at the presumption of innocence, a keystone of any free society.
The obvious partisan pandering behind this free speech policy could further delegitimize free speech in the eyes of lefties who view it as a Trojan Horse for smuggling right-wing bigotry onto campuses. That should concern everyone who values free speech. If we are to establish it as a cherished norm on dogmatic Ontario campuses, we must persuade people across the political spectrum that free speech is a weapon against tyranny, a way to discover nuanced truths, and an avenue for protesting against or debunking bigots. The Ontario government’s threat to universities ultimately harms free speech more than it helps by further polarizing it along partisan lines.