The impact of Ford’s free speech policies A thought about what these policies mean for McMaster

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Photo by Grant Holt

by Ruchika Gothoskar

Doug Ford, Ontario’s new premier, has set out guidelines that give Ontario universities until Jan. 1, 2019 to develop a free speech policy on campus, a hot-button topic among the Progressive Conservative party after several high-profile incidents involving speakers with conservative views.

McMaster is no stranger to such engagements, after the highly contentious appearance of controversial psychology professor Jordan Peterson at McMaster in 2017, when his lecture was shut down by protestors.  

The PC government made it clear that Ontario colleges and universities must come up with free speech policies that “include a definition of freedom of speech and adhere to principles based on the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression”.

The University of Chicago’s document currently states that colleges and university are places for open and free discussion, that institutions should not shield students from ideas they disagree with or find offensive and that university or college community members cannot obstruct the freedom of others to share their views. Should Ontario post-secondary institution fail to implement this policy, they risk facing major funding cuts.

The reality of this situation is that we have had this conversation before, many times. McMaster began creating an anti-disruption policy in 2017, a draft that outlines acceptable methods to protest appearances by polarizing figures. The document was created by the university’s committee on protest and freedom of expression in response to an increasingly polarized political and social climate where protests on campus are becoming more common place.

The question now is not whether or not McMaster will adhere to Ford’s demands on free speech policies, simply because we know that McMaster’s already been eager to shut down disruptions and allow for “free discussion” from the jump. What needs to be thought about now is who this policy is hurting, and what kind of dog whistle is embedded in the creation of policies like these.

Implementing school wide policies that do not allow for things like trigger warnings or safe spaces are ultimately harmful for everyone involved. These content disclaimers and spaces allow for individuals to decide how or if they want to engage. For people who experience trauma, such as sexual assault or attempted suicide, unexpected re-exposure to traumatic events can provoke a strong negative emotional response, impeding on their ability to learn and interact appropriately.

Furthermore, the threat of cut funding is one that hits home for many. Playing around with an institution’s funding is a bold declaration. Many, if not all, post secondary institutions admit students, hire staff and create boards on the sole and main expectation that they can honour employment contracts or periods of study. This makes non-compliance with the free speech policies high risk, putting not only students’ livelihoods at stake, but also administrators’ and educators’.

Realistically, when implemented, policies like these do nothing but reduce advocacy for minority groups and the left hand political spectrum, leave students without a voice and further silence those who already come from marginalized backgrounds. Activist and writer Nora Loreto says it best, “free speech is freedom from reprisals from the state. This [policy], instead, is a stunning attack on the free speech of anyone in the university of college community.”

Oftentimes, when individuals speak out on acts of oppression, such as sexism or ableism, they are told that they are being politically correct. This ultimately derails the conversation and forgoes an opportunity for a mutually beneficial learning experience, counterproductive to the nature of university. With political correctness and trigger warnings, we are still able to have difficult conversations. And we should; being uncomfortable is often necessary in learning as it means we are challenging what we know and critically engaging with what is presented to us. Adopting a politically correct perspective ensures that these conversations are constructive and that we recognize our words for what they are: impactful.

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