Universities should defend unpopular speech, not politicians who use funding as leverage

Robert PriceLike a soundtrack on endless repeat, universities have come around again to the one about free speech.

It’s an old song. The chorus goes something like, “Universities must support freedom of expression.”

It’s not the catchiest tune but like the national anthem, it’s a song to sing with heart.

One person who sings loudly and sometimes gratingly is Rick Mehta.

Mehta is a Canadian academic whose activism and blunt opinions on a diversity of topics cost him his job as a psychology professor last week.

In a statement, Mehta linked his firing to a “culture war” between censorious campus leftists and freedom-loving everybody else.

Whether campus politics brought about Mehta’s termination is hard to know. Mehta’s former employer, Acadia University, has chosen to keep reports that led to Mehta’s firing private.

Mehta’s case, as vague as it is, has once again raised concerns that universities are unable or uninterested in defending unpopular speech.

No doubt Mehta’s termination will breathe new fire into Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s plan to institutionalize free speech on university campuses.

The Progressive Conservative premier announced last month that Ontario’s publicly-funded colleges and universities must institute free speech regulations. The government will monitor schools to ensure they comply with this directive and cut funding to those that can’t.

Ford’s decision didn’t come out of nowhere. In recent years, Ontario campuses have seen violence, threats of violence, disruptions and a general disorder whenever a contentious speaker has shown up. Fiascos like the one at Wilfrid Laurier University, where a teaching assistant recorded her superiors talking stupid in a private meeting, have not helped to craft an image of campuses as places that welcome differing opinions.

Bundle in the myriad controversies on U.S. campuses and instances of censorship seem less like one-offs than a trend.

In light of these events, Ford’s free speech policy makes a modicum of sense. If campus administrators cannot or will not stand for the principle of free speech – because certain speech is considered harmful, un-politically correct or unpopular – then government should enforce it.

Ford’s policy sounds good but it probably won’t look good.

First, Ford wants to fight the protestors who police speech by … policing speech. He will install a new level of management to manage our already heavily managed institutions. Bureaucracy helps nobody but bureaucrats.

Not only that but by tying funding to the quality of speech, Ford is putting a price on speech. Speech isn’t free if it has a price.

Which speech is Ford buying?

Presumably Ford’s kind of speech.

It’s hard not to conclude that Ford is using the force of government to amplify conservative voices on campuses, the people who wish to criticize multiculturalism, transgenderism, feminism, Islam, immigration, abortion and Indigenous politics.

It’s also hard not to think that by wading into the culture wars, Ford will only deepen the hyper-partisan divide on campuses.

That said, who can fault Ford for thinking Ontario’s schools have become a liberal imperium? On highly politicized issues, like the movement to decolonize our schools, critics are mostly silent. And given the shameful fact that so many faculty members in Ontario work part time and contract-to-contract for egregiously low wages, nobody should be surprised if these teachers self-regulate and keep unpopular ideas to themselves.

The threat to free expression won’t come only from the neo-Nazi who might speak on campus. The threat comes from within, when scholars censor their thoughts, their writing, and their research to avoid the retaliation they know will come in force from furious social media mobs and angry colleagues.

This isn’t a problem government can solve. It has to start with at the top, with university and college leaders who cultivate space for a diversity of ideas.

And it has to happen at the bottom, with faculty willing to speak, write and research as if their speech is free.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.


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