Queen’s to take ‘less is more’ approach with free speech policy

Senate tense over Ford government's presence in University affairs

The Ford government mandated universities to draft free speech protections by the new year.
Credit: 
Journal File photo

The Principal’s office will use existing policies and practices to draft a stand-alone free speech policy, drawing on a “less is more” approach, Principal Daniel Woolf said at Tuesday’s Senate meeting.

At the meeting, Woolf opened the floor to a discussion about the upcoming free speech policy mandated by the Ford government, due for Jan. 1. 

Several senators expressed concern the Ford government’s involvement in University policies could be deemed interference. 

“There is question that in doing so, the government is arguably intervening in the institutional affairs of universities,” Woolf said. 

But according to Woolf, there’s no need to “reinvent the wheel.”

“Our view is that we have always protected freedom of speech on campus,” he said. “What we are doing here is simply drawing together existing practices and policies into one to satisfy this challenge that has been thrust upon us.” 

“This is rather similar to the approach we took a few years ago with our sexual violence policy.” 

Some senators asked Woolf, who’s the chair of the Council of Ontario Universities, about the Council’s approach to the province’s requirements.

“We are all agreed on the ‘less is more’ approach,” Woolf said. 

For example, Western University released a first draft of their free speech policy earlier this month largely based on policies and practices the school’s adhered to for years. 

Woolf told Senate there was some concern the Ford government would interfere with academic freedom—which he said the new policy won’t address—and freedom of expression, which is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but doesn’t apply to universities. 

Woolf also noted the Council had initially been concerned about the approach the Ford government would take to the topic of free speech. 

“The [Ford] government also did not go another direction [the Council] was quite worried about,” he said. “And that was overseeing a fully American style of freedom of speech which is governed by the first amendment and has rather fewer limitations on what we would describe as hate speech.”

Senator Yolande Chan, who attended several Council meetings, said universities will refer to existing policies and practices when drafting new policies. 

 “This is not a political issue; it’s a university issue,” Chan said. 

Some senators raised concerns about the Ford government’s expectation for student disciplinary measures to include withdrawal of funding. 

According to Woolf, this detail of the government’s mandate “might actually rest on a misunderstanding of how the funding of student government actually works.” He described the University as a conveyor belt, collecting student fees and delivering them to respective student bodies, with no control over how much each receives. 

In terms of other areas of confusion, Woolf stated it “remains unclear” how mandatory compliance reports will be collected and given to the Ford government. 

“With the policy we want, as we always have, different points of view on campus and not to shield students,” he said. 

Despite the reliance on existing policies, several senators questioned the University’s choice to include the Senate as a consultant in the drafting process but not a decision-making body.

Woolf explained that because the province has indicated non-compliance could result in funding cuts, the ultimate editing decisions will be up to the Board of Trustees who will protect the University from legal and financial exposure.   

He stressed, however, a draft of the policy would be made public before the November Senate meeting for community discussion.

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