Theatrics is inherent to politics. Practiced with apparent sincerity and decorum, it can rally support around a government or a cause. On the other hand, histrionic displays of indignation or sorrow sometimes reek of hypocrisy and backfire. We all understand this, although we may disagree on who crossed the line. Sometimes theatre is used as a device to persuade voters of the need for a course of action to address a real problem. At other times, there is no real problem or coherent course of action to be embellished – the performance itself is the main goal, as it provides politicians the opportunity to claim credit for appearing to be acting on what voters believe is an issue.
Enter recent Ontario politics. In the lead up to the start of the academic year, the Progressive Conservative government followed up on Premier Doug Ford’s campaign promise to enforce free speech on college and university campuses. Essentially the government now requires higher education institutions to develop free speech policies, enforce them, and report on their efforts to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Universities that don’t comply with the new requirement or choose not to follow the policies, may see cuts in operating budgets, at the discretion of the government.
The gap between the theatrics of Progressive Conservative’s embrace of campus free speech and reality is wide. Most with a working knowledge of higher education would agree that we are nowhere near a free speech crisis in colleges and universities, let alone one justifying government intervention – and we would think that the bar for the nanny state to step in would be higher for a PC government. The few cases that make the newspapers are upsetting and illustrate poor judgement from students, faculty, and administrators. However, they are hardly typical of the scores of conversations, debates, and events that take place uneventfully across campuses every week. But normalcy does not make the news.
The PC party obviously chose to define this as a problem worth addressing because the conventional wisdom about campus free speech pits a loud majority of left wing social justice warriors against conservative speakers and ideas. Federal PC leader Andrew Scheer, whose leadership run included a similar free speech proposal that explicitly targeted political correctness and safe spaces, congratulated Premier Ford on the policy. The Ford campaign said relatively little about free speech, perhaps wisely, as maintaining the veneer of a principled stance requires avoiding elaboration. However, Training, Colleges, and Universities Minister Fullerton recently exemplified the horror of censorship “on campus” through an event that was disrupted at the Ottawa Public Library, involving a self-described anti-feminist professor. No matter the incoherence, a display of strength from the progressive conservative government against institutions perceived as dominated by left-of-centre student groups and professors, shows conservative voters that the premier is on their side.
The government’s statement on the policy asks institutions to define freedom of speech, reminds them that “speech that violates the law is not allowed”, and compels them to adopt the Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago (would that have anything to do with profuse praise in a recent Globe and Mail editorial?). Why the University of Chicago’s, and not the made-in-Canada 1992 Statement on Freedom of Speech of the University of Toronto, which is as strong a defense of free speech as one can find? What if each of the 44 colleges and universities defines freedom of speech differently?
We will likely never have answers to these questions. The Council of Ontario Universities issued a mildly obsequious statement expressing a shared commitment to freedom of expression, tortuously reminding the government that universities have “policies that affirm the right to freedom of expression for students, faculty and staff, and have mechanisms in place to resolve disputes.” COU has thus accepted the role it plays in the free speech spectacle set up by the government, which may be good tactics to avoid bruising egos of interlocutors who hold the purse strings. Nonetheless, this is a rather short-term and ineffectual form of public relations. The Ontario citizen who may inadvertently come across this message will see validation, not contestation, of the free speech crisis, which does not bode well for the public perception of universities.
If the free speech policy were anything but a show, we would expect to see a modicum of thought given to what the government expects colleges and universities to do that is different from what they have been doing, and adds to what is already determined by the law. But this is the premier that campaigned on “buck-a-beer”, that has required schools to teach a 26-year-old sex-ed curriculum, and enforced a reduction of Toronto city council. Reasonable deliberation and evidence-based policy are not high on the agenda, and it would be surprising to see anything but theatrics when it comes to higher education.