DC, UOIT protecting free speech

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the UOIT campus in August, he gave reporters his thoughts on free speech. Photo credit: Janis Williams

Free speech versus hate speech.

It’s a political tightrope and new Ontario Premier Doug Ford wants the province’s colleges and universities to walk it.

Ford has mandated post-secondary schools to develop and publicly post their own free speech policies by Jan. 1, 2019.

“Colleges and universities should be places where students exchange different ideas and opinions in open and respectful debate,” Ford says in a statement. “Our government made a commitment to the people of Ontario to protect free speech on campuses.”

What does this mean for DC and UOIT? Don’t expect to see too much change on campus because policies already exist and are put in place.

One immediate change is a new committee put together to represent all 24 Ontario colleges, with one representative for DC. They will look at the University of Chicago statement on principles of free expression and develop their own set of principles and policies to adopt as a collective system.

DC and UOIT are no strangers to dealing with the balance of free speech and human rights.

Dr. Steven Murphy, UOIT president, says the university is well-practiced in the pros and cons of bringing people to campus. He says it is important speakers bring value to the students and push them to think in different ways. He says the individuals coming to campus should be open to being challenged themselves.

“We’ve always been champions of free speech and will continue to be,” Murphy says.

DC president Don Lovisa agrees with Murphy. He sees the importance of freedom of thought and the ability to express an opinion.

“It has to be positive, it has to contribute to understanding, education and [bring] value and it doesn’t disparage one group versus another, a balance needs to be achieved,” says Lovisa.

Murphy says free speech is a cornerstone of society and people look to push their platforms at universities. Because of this, UOIT needs to find a balance between free speech and upholding the Ontario human rights code.

When someone wants to speak, Murphy says the school needs to keep a safe and civil space. He says this can be a grey area because there is a fine line between genuine concerns versus ideologies being challenged.

Lovisa also carefully weighs the rights of individuals and the collective.

“We all value free speech and I value free speech. Free speech is protected under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms but I do distinguish between free speech and hate speech,” Lovisa says.

The most recent freedom of speech on campus issues to make national headlines was at Wilfrid Laurier University about a year ago. Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant, was reprimanded after showing her students a video clip of a debate with University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson regarding the use of gendered pronouns. The University ultimately apologized to her for the incident.

DC and UOIT have not had to deal with controversies at this level.

Lovisa says it’s important to keep this a Canadian issue, he says unfortunately, many of our political decisions are driven by a U.S. lens.

“We have to make sure that we’re developing policies for our institutions and society. Our society is different than the United States, our politics are different, our values are different in some cases,” Lovisa says. “So, whenever we develop policies we want to make sure they fit your needs as a student and not a student in the United States.”

He says Canada is not as deeply politically divided as the Unites States. He says because of free speech, we learn from each other with understanding, even if we share different world views.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on campus in August and shared his thoughts on free speech.

“We need to have a country that is open, respectful that engages across the full range of diversity of views and that includes a range of diversity or ideologies,” Trudeau says.

There is no space for hate speech in Canada, Trudeau added.