New free speech policy makes students & universities less safe

No clear definition of hate speech reveals protection of students insufficient 

Mihan stands in front of Ontario Hall.
Mihan stands in front of Ontario Hall.
Tessa Warburton

Freedom of speech is a complex issue and cannot be sufficiently tackled through one simple law.

On Aug. 30, 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford passed a bill supporting freedom of speech on campuses across the province.

Universities will have until Jan. 1, 2019, to implement the proposed policy. They will also have to report annually and publicly on the bill’s implementation progress, providing a summary of its compliance throughout the year.  If institutions fail to comply with the province’s requirements to report on free speech policies, they can be subject to a reduction in operating grants.

The bill aims to stimulate intellectual conversation and remind students of the importance of maintaining an open mind when it comes to free speech.

However, the ambiguity surrounding the policy’s definition of hate speech leaves students at risk of being marginalized, and universities of possibly endorsing harmful rhetoric.

In a statement from the province explaining the guidelines of the policy, institutions must meet a minimum standard where students aren’t shielded “from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.”

The phrase “hate speech” is entirely omitted from the statement. We need to establish that openly discriminatory and oppressive rhetoric is not a part of—and needs to be publicly exempt from—free speech.

Without a clear definition of hate speech, universities are left without a clear idea of when they are or aren’t allowed to permit speakers on campus.

The policy puts them in a precarious position—just like students—and brings forward the concern as to how institutions might deal with campus protests.

If there’s student unrest towards a speaker set to speak on campus, universities may be thought to be neglectful of students’ concerns. Conversely, if universities are to condemn or deny speakers a platform, they run the risk of reduced funding from the province.

The closest piece of provincial legislation that exists in defining hate speech is Section 319 of the Criminal Code. It includes protection for citizens from the willful promotion of hatred, and shields people from being exposed to hate speech as well as mistakenly taking part in it.

The province’s policy states its sole focus is to ensure open debate and discussion—but they do so without establishing limitations on how far these debates can go. This form of protection, or lack of, is insufficient for students.

At Queen’s, which is host to an especially involved campus, students who are exposed to hate speech under the policy will ultimately be left feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable.

Instead of seeking to provide a platform to speakers and groups on the grounds of open discussion and free inquiry, the motive behind this policy seems to be political.

Prior to the policy being introduced, universities had the choice to deny speakers platforms at their school. This decision implies the province is comfortable with inviting potentially harmful voices back into the limelight by limiting institutions’ freedom.

Despite this, however, I believe it’s essential to allow all members of the political spectrum to have an opportunity to express their views. This policy gives us the freedom to sit down and listen—but it doesn’t give us the freedom to stand up and reply to discriminating rhetoric. 

It’s critical we give hate speech a true definition and practice the rights we deserve as Canadian students before allowing any person or group to speak on university campuses. 

Kayvon is a second-year commerce student.

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