Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that publicly funded universities in Ontario have until Jan. 1st 2019 to develop policies protecting free speech on campuses or else face funding cuts. This comes as no surprise, for it was one of many things that during his campaign Ford promised to do. But while some think that Ford’s order infringes on university autonomy, others think that with the ever-growing intolerance towards social and political speakers and views that aren’t progressive, it’s a needed step.
Ford’s actions raise three questions.
The first is whether free speech is a fundamental aspect of a free society. One mark of a free society is the ability of citizens to voice their opinions without fear of punishment. This crucial thing is what we call freedom of expression or free speech; it allows us to freely disagree, freely express dissenting views, and freely criticize all ideas. Our human intellects are directed towards seeking after truth and as such we attempt to articulate thoughts in a systematic manner in hopes that what we grasp is something true and not false. And inevitably some of these verbalizations will be at odds with prevailing views, some will fall in line with them, others will be downright wrong, others will be right but in direct opposition to societal norms. Hence it is crucial for educational institutions to protect and promote free speech since it precisely through this freedom that we can exercise our intellectual capacities in pursuit of truth.
The second question is how important is free speech in universities. In our modern society often it is through universities that we are exposed to new ideas, encouraged to engage in dialogue, and taught to think critically. Unfortunately, instead of instilling in students—the future leaders—the principles of freedom, our universities have sheltered them from ideas that might make them uncomfortable. Our universities have intentionally prevented controversial speakers from presenting their thoughts, thoughts which might challenge prevailing views, via high security fees and by allowing students and others to disrupt talks. They have threatened their own students and professors with sanctions. But if we want to live in a free society, our universities must promote the free exchange of ideas in open and rational dialogue.
The third question is whether the Ford government overstepped its authority in demanding that universities create free speech policies. Universities, we might agree, are shirking their duty to promote free, open, and rational debate on campus. But does this demand infringe on university autonomy? Autonomy would be infringed, of course, were government to declare that universities must only hire professors and staff from a certain ethnic group or else face funding cuts. Or were government to require that all class syllabi be checked for subversive readings. Yet, the difference with these examples and the Ford government insisting that universities must adopt a free speech policy is that in the latter case the government is insisting upon the value that has made this nation a free one. Neither of the other examples has to do with any of the core beliefs in a free society.
The government is not imposing some peculiar value on the universities; rather, it is insisting that the universities take seriously the fundamental principles of freedom upon which Canadian society is founded. When universities constantly undercut values that makes this society free, this insistence is a good thing. In a time when challenging or even doubting prevailing dogmas can result in ostracism or punishment, this government’s warning to universities to adopt a free speech policy should be welcomed.
Living in a free society always means that we are free to use our intellect to investigate the world, to debate with each other, and to espouse dissenting views—all in hopes of attaining truth. The university is certainly one place where ideas should be exchanged, where dialogues should take place, and where our minds should develop. Since free speech is necessary for all this, universities are places where free speech should be rigorously upheld.
My welcoming of Ford’s intervention is not to be confused with uncritical optimism or deference to whatever the government says. I simply find it a hopeful step towards restoring a culture of freedom on university campuses.