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On Aug. 30, the Progressive Conservative provincial government announced a new directive mandating all Ontario universities to “develop, implement and comply” with formal free speech policies by January 2019. According to the official statement, if a university is not compliant, the particular institution may be subject to a reduction in operating grant funding.
In June, McMaster released updated freedom of expression guidelines for event organizers and participants following an ad-hoc committee report and first draft. As of now, it is unclear whether these guidelines qualify as a policy under the new directive.
“We are hopeful that this guidance document will meet the needs of the government,” said McMaster director of communications Gord Arbeau. “We are waiting to hear back from the province about the specifics around that directive that was issued a few weeks ago.”
Both the McMaster Student Union and Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906 which represents sessional faculty, post-doc fellows and teaching assistants, have objected to the Ford government’s mandate and McMaster’s current stance on the issue of freedom of expression.
In particular, MSU president Ikram Farah stated that she acknowledges concerns from students who feel that the directive for a mandatory free speech policy could suppress the voices of marginalized communities.
“What I have heard from marginalized and racialized students is that there is a fear that free speech legislation will be used to further limit the ability to call attention to truths,” said Farah.
Nathan Todd, CUPE 3906 recording secretary, also expresses concern with the province-mandated policy. In particular, CUPE 3906 stands with the official CUPE 3906 stance that the free speech policy could negatively affect marginalized communities and actually prevent freedom of expression.
“Our main concern is that it could give the university too much power to prevent things like organizing and mobilizing,” said Todd.
CUPE 3906 is specifically worried that the current McMaster free speech guidelines and any future policy will limit protest.
“We released a response to that policy and our policy is essentially the same for this one for Doug Ford, which is that it is actually quite anti-free speech in a lot of ways and hasn’t been developed or implemented responsibly or democratically,” said Todd.
The Student Representative Assembly unanimously passed a motion in June stipulating that the MSU “advocate to the university that continuous revisions be made” to the freedom of expression guidelines.
At the Sept. 23 SRA meeting, Farah urged SRA caucus members to actively gather student feedback on the issue.
“Should it be a policy, at least let it be the best guidance document possible that is reflective of the students who will be affected by it most,” said Farah.
CUPE 3906 has been taking action by coordinating with its union members to establish a formal response to the new policy.
Despite the MSU and CUPE 3906’s objections to the university’s stance on free expression, McMaster stands by its guidelines and commitment to “open and civil discourse.” Nevertheless, the university is willing to hear out different sides on the matter and even amend the current guiding document.
“If someone came forward with other ways of improving that document or with suggestions on how that document could be better understood or positioned, then absolutely we would be open to considering that,” said Arbeau.
For now, the university is waiting to hear back from the provincial government. By imposing a firm directive and a short timeline, the Ford government has brought the subject of free speech back front and centre at McMaster and across Ontario.