Freedom of Expression at Canadian Universities: A difficult compromise?

AuthorMcKay-Panos, Linda
PositionColumns: Human Rights Law

Recently, Ontario's Premier Doug Ford passed a new policy that Ontario universities should adopt free-speech policies, or face receiving less money from the Government. The policies must meet "a minimum standard prescribed by government." This means that "while members of the university/college are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to express their views". Universities must report on their progress in implementing the policy to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. In addition to threatened funding cuts, students who do not comply with the policy will be subject to university discipline policies.

Other provinces, such as Alberta, have indicated they will consider whether the "Chicago Principles" should be applied to university campuses. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also indicated in his campaign that his government would include a similar free speech proposal.

The Chicago Principles are intended to "reflect the long-standing and distinctive values of the University of Chicago and [affirm] the importance of maintaining and, indeed, celebrating those values for the future". Universities are encouraged not to suppress "offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed" ideas. Instead, members of the university community and the university itself should openly and forcefully contest the ideas they oppose. The Chicago Principles also recognize the U.S. law's limitations on free speech:

The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. (Chicago Principles.) Unlike most Canadian universities, the University of Chicago is a private research university and is not operated or funded by governments, but may be subject to government regulation.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression are not the same concept. How do they differ?

* Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but it is not clear whether the Charter applies to campuses;

* Academic freedom in Canada is described as: "the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom to teach and discuss," and the "freedom to express one's opinion about the institution, its administration, and...

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