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Conservative Platform Makes Free Speech Policies A Requirement For University Grants

Universities that don't express a "commitment" to free speech would not be eligible for grants.
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer addresses the media following the unveiling of his party's platform in Delta, B.C. Friday, October 11, 2019.
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer addresses the media following the unveiling of his party's platform in Delta, B.C. Friday, October 11, 2019.

Canadian post-secondary institutions that bar racist, anti-LGBTQ or other speakers from their campuses could see their research grants slashed under a Conservative government.

That’s according to the Conservative Party of Canada’s official platform, which launched Friday and contains a pledge to “promote free speech on campus.”

Under a Conservative government, post-secondary institutions will have to have “an expressed commitment to free speech and academic freedom” in order to receive federal research support grants, such as those from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) or the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERCC).

Between 2012 and 2018, SSHRCC distributed over $2.6 billion in funding investments to universities. This comes in the form of project and talent-based grants for both faculty and students.

WATCH: Scheer unveils Conservative platform in Delta, B.C. Story continues below.

During the party’s platform announcement in Delta, B.C., Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer said it’s about promoting “legitimate debate” on Canadian campuses.

“We’ve seen phenomena all over the world where people are not able to speak, where events have been canceled, not because they violate any particular code of conduct or university policy, but just simply because people protested,” he said.

The policy comes as events featuring controversial speakers including Jordan Peterson, Lindsay Shepherd and Meghan Murphy have been protested or cancelled at Canadian universities in recent years.

What is a commitment to free speech?

The metrics for measuring a campus’s commitment to free speech are not yet decided, but Scheer says the Tories would consult on the issue.

“I’ve already have to start to have some of those consultations as leader of the opposition, and we will continue those as government and ensure that students have the knowledge and the confidence that free speech is protected on campus,” Scheer said.

Post-secondary education is technically the jurisdiction of provincial governments, however, threatening federal grant funding is a way for the Conservatives to impose campus free speech on the federal level.

WATCH: What is the cost of free speech? Story continues below.

At the platform launch, Scheer wouldn’t commit directly to the controversial “Chicago principles”, already adopted by the Jason Kenney and Doug Ford governments in Alberta and Ontario. The term refers to a policy statement published by the University of Chicago in 2015 to affirm the school’s commitment to free expression, developed after blowback from several controversial speakers at the campus.

“It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” the statement read.

The principles attracted public attention in 2016, when the University of Chicago’s dean of students wrote a letter to the incoming class, claiming the school’s views on freedom of expression mean they don’t support “trigger warnings” or “intellectual safe spaces.”

In 2018, Ford’s Ontario government mandated that all universities in the province develop freedom of speech policies in line with the Chicago principles.

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

Leading up to the 2019 provincial election in Alberta, Kenney’s United Conservaitve Party platform contained an explicit reference to the Chicago Principles, noting that post-secondary institutions must “develop, post and comply with free speech policies that conform to the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression.”

However, critics of the principles argue they are tailored to American hate speech laws and worry they could embolden intolerant views on Canadian campuses.

“Freedom of speech is not equally accessible for all people,” said Glynnis Lieb, executive director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta told the Edmonton Journal in June. “Marginalized groups don’t have the same access to freedom of speech as those who already have a lot of privilege.”

The freedom to speak

Scheer’s announcement comes as debate around freedom of speech and controversial speakers continue to be pressing issues on Canadian campuses.

This summer, the University of British Columbia’s refusal to cancel an event featuring noted transphobic speaker Jenn Smith resulted in the institution being barred from participating in Vancouver Pride, with organizers arguing that the university gave a platform to hate speech by allowing the talk to go forward.

Most recently, a panel discussion — also featuring Meghan Murphy — at Simon Fraser University in B.C. prompted calls for its cancellation and mobilizations around protesting the event. The panel, called “How Media Bias Shapes The Gender Identity Debate,” purports to have a frank discussion on the “consequences” of gender identity discussions in the media. The panel does not include any trans or queer-identified speakers

In an open letter to SFU protesting the event student Sabia Hurley argued that the talk violated B.C.’s human rights code.

“Under BC’s Human Rights Code, LGBTQIA2S students and faculty members at SFU have a legal right to an educational environment free from discrimination and harassment, and inviting [this panel] to SFU means inviting anti-trans discrimination,” Hurley wrote.

In a Sept. 25 statement, SFU vice-president academic and provost Jon Driver defended the panel on free speech grounds.

“Universities operate on the principle that freedom of expression is a core component of intellectual enquiry and central to the pursuit of knowledge,” he wrote. “As such, we support the right of faculty and other SFU community members to engage in free speech within the limits of the law.”

Driver also cites SFU’s own free speech statement, which says that “when disputes arise in our university around major social and political issues, we should err on the side of tolerating free speech,” the statement reads.

During Friday’s announcement, Scheer said he recognizes marginalized students’ rights to be free from discrimination and harassment, but also argued that free speech is important.

“Of course universities have the right and the obligation to ensure that students can take their studies in security and without the fear of harassment,” he said. “But we also have to make sure that — especially on university campuses, which were founded to have those challenging ideas, challenged ideas and robust debate — that can continue.”

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