Outraged Responses to Ontario Free Speech Directive Reveal the Problem the Directive is Trying to Solve

April 2019

Doublethink, wrote George Orwell, means to hold opposing beliefs and to accept the truth of both. “To know and not to know, to hold simultaneously two opinions which (cancel) out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.” When the Ontario government released its directive last August requiring universities to prepare policies that protect free speech, it exposed the doublethink that thrives in the halls of academia. In response to the directive, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) said that requiring universities to protect free speech would threaten free speech. So did James Turk, writing for the Centre for Free Expression. According to University of Waterloo philosopher Shannon Dea, the policy imperils academic freedom, while Nora Loreto’s piece in the National Observer said the directive amounts to government-compelled speech.

Like most academics, these critics regard academic freedom as sacrosanct: expression at universities must be unrestrained. The mission of creating knowledge and educating students depends upon it, Turk wrote, and “failure to protect free expression on campus destroys the foundation of the university.” But paradoxically, speech must also be limited, the critics insisted. Universities must be able to make policies about speech, said OCUFA, so that they maintain “a safe and secure educational environment”. Such policies, said the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), should reconcile “unhindered debate with the need to ensure that all voices can be heard without facing discrimination and harassment” and, wrote Turk, allow for “community discussions about proper limits to free speech”. A policy that protects free speech, they claimed, endangers free speech because it imperils the institutional autonomy of universities to limit speech.

The well of doublethink is deep. A free speech policy will discourage members of the university community from speaking, said OCUFA, for fear of being disciplined. (If a free speech policy prohibited criticism of the policy, then it wouldn’t really be a free speech policy, would it?) Universities can’t achieve free speech without more money, said CAUT (presumably because having no restrictions on speech is more expensive than having them?). Besides, there is no free speech problem to fix, wrote Turk, who claimed there is more freedom of expression on university campuses than anywhere else in Canada.

I expect Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant disciplined at Wilfrid Laurier for showing a clip of a televised debate, would disagree, as would Rick Mehta, a psychology professor fired by Acadia University, ostensibly for expressing unpopular views. When I invited University of Toronto Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson to give the inaugural Liberty Lecture at Queen’s University last year, many faculty and students vehemently objected. When Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf, to his credit, defended academic freedom and informed respectful debate, numerous professors signed an open letter criticizing his refusal to condemn the talk. A couple of minutes into the lecture, two protestors jumped on the stage, and for much of the evening, others banged on the windows of the hall from the outside in an attempt to shut down the event.

This March, after Professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania delivered the 2019 Liberty Lecture, Queen’s law students launched a petition to denounce the Liberty Lecture series. They are adept at doublethink too. “We affirm the importance of free speech in society and at Queen’s Law,” the petition reads, “and we specifically denounce the attempt of the ‘Liberty Lectures’ to co-opt the term ‘free speech’ as something which is ideologically juxtaposed to promoting inclusivity and diversity.” Speech is not free, they say, unless it promotes a particular political imperative. Note the logic: such speech is not merely illegitimate but not free. (At the time of writing, the petition had circulated for a day and a half and almost a third of the student body had signed on.)

Campus speech policies should be simple. Universities are automatically subject to the same laws that apply everywhere else. Laws about defamation, harassment, hate speech and discrimination apply in exactly the same way to speech in the classroom as they do to speech on the sidewalk. Universities need do nothing to make that so and could not change it if they wanted to. Academic speech – ideas, theories and opinions, based on reasoning or data – no matter how controversial, does not legally constitute hate speech, harassment, discrimination, defamation, assault or harm. The law does not prohibit speech that happens to offend. University policies should simply say: “Other than limits contained in the laws of the land, there are no restrictions on the content of speech on this campus.”

To protect speech, universities also need “time and place” rules. You can say anything you want but you cannot yell it out in a classroom so as to disrupt the lecture; you cannot tape your posters on the chalkboard; and you cannot bang on the windows to shut down speakers with whom you disagree. These rules do not limit the content of speech. They are not about what can be said but when and where you say it. Peaceful protests are not prohibited. Those who object to a speaker’s message may parade with signs or hold a competing talk with a contrary view. However, they may not prevent the speaker from speaking, which would interfere both with the right to speak and with the audience’s right to listen.

Institutions are apt to use “time and place” rules to restrict the content of speech without admitting that they are doing so. Yes, they say, you can state your views on abortion but you may only do so in a roped off zone in an isolated area. Yes, you may bring in controversial speakers but you must pay security fees to book the room. Yes, you are entitled to your own views but this classroom is a safe space where offensive speech is not appropriate. Such policies are not genuine “time and place” rules but excuses to control content. Legitimate rules protect open discussion and vigorous debate, not limit them. Freedom of speech means the freedom to say things that others may find offensive. All controversial ideas are offensive to someone. Academic freedom ceases to exist when it is “balanced” against community preferences. As Principal Woolf wrote, “protection from disagreeable ideas isn’t safety; it’s infantilization and robs everyone of the opportunity to reflect and grow.”

Whether Ontario universities might again be places to get an actual education remains to be seen. Critics remain undaunted. Free speech, they say, yes of course but not if your views are “odious and ill-informed”, as the Queen’s professors’ letter put it. Loreto wrote, “Ontarians will be smart to pay close attention to these attacks on free speech and free expression, and intensely organize against them.” She may as well have asserted that freedom is slavery. Censors of the world unite!