Blaise Alleyne, left, and Lindsay Shepherd.

Is free speech on campus really free?

  • November 24, 2019

Forgive Blaise Alleyne if he doesn’t quite agree with the provincial government that Ontario universities and colleges are paragons of free speech. The pro-life advocate has the scars to prove they aren’t all that tolerant to some speech.

“I was assaulted, and my colleague was assaulted with a weapon,” said Alleyne of a pro-life outreach he was conducting at Toronto’s Ryerson University. 

It’s been a regular occurrence over the 15 years Alleyne has advocated for the rights of the unborn on Toronto campuses, he says. He’s had coffee spit on him and his displays have been blockaded or ransacked. The most recent disruption came in early October at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus.

“When I called for assistance from UTM campus police, the first thing that happened is that I got a talking to about the pro-life display,” said Alleyne, the founder of Toronto Against Abortion who is an educational co-ordinator with pro-life groups on campuses across Toronto.

Alleyne is still waiting to hear back from U of T after filing a complaint.

On Nov. 4 the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) released its first college and university free speech report and said all Ontario institutes are in compliance with a free speech policy the Conservative government demanded shortly after taking power in June 2018.

“Our government worked quickly to protect free speech on campus, and colleges and universities have done a great job of putting consistent, effective policies in place,” said Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities.

In August 2018, schools were mandated to develop, implement and comply with policies that protect free speech while keeping campuses free of hate speech, discrimination and other illegal forms of speech. 

Bringing universities and colleges in line with free speech policies was a key plank in the Conservative platform after a growing outcry over speech issues on campus. For years, pro-life groups and others with conservative leanings faced harassment and had events shut down by protesters. It seemed to come to a head in 2017 when Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd found herself at odds with her supervisor for showing a clip of Jordan Peterson — the U of T professor who fought using gender pronouns when addressing students — in her communications class. It made national headlines and stirred controversy over academic freedom issues.

Shepherd, now a Campus Free Speech Fellow with the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, read the report that said only one out of 40,000 events was shut down for security issues (a Canadian Nationalist Party event at U of T in January). That would seem to indicate schools are taking free speech seriously. But Shepherd said that of these 40,000 events, it’s minuscule how many would be put on by free speech-minded students.

“Thinking about all Conservatives/free speech advocates/Christians across all universities in Ontario who actually have clubs and host events, how many events would that cumulatively be?” asked Shepherd in an e-mail interview with The Register. “Maybe 20-100? So the few events that free speech advocates/conservatives/right-wingers do host are really the only events at risk of being protested in the first place.”

This, she said, is the “success” the government speaks of when it lauds compliance on campus.

Shepherd said students have been “internalized, since elementary school, that they should not question the gender/race/sexuality/gender identity orthodoxy du jour lest they be labelled hateful racist homophobes,” so the number of students who would host certain events “is already incredibly small.”

Alleyne doesn’t see university administrations as the main culprit. That belongs to the student unions.

“If you look at student unions, that’s where you see major problems with free speech,” said Alleyne.

That was supposed to be taken care of with the government’s call for compliance. It’s been a “glaring omission” in the just-released report, he said.

There are no pro-life clubs with official status granted by student unions on any of the five university campuses in Toronto, notes Alleyne, though they’ve found a way around that at U of T and York University, where such clubs are recognized by the administration. 

There is currently a complaint against Ryerson before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario concerning discrimination and harassment pro-life groups face. Alleyne said it’s at the point that pro-lifers have not tried to host an event on campus since April 2017.

This chill is palpable on campus, said Shepherd, and the lack of events cancelled should not be the barometer for free speech on campus. Certain groups are discouraged from hosting events because of the threat of cancellation and being hit with exorbitant security fees in the face of protest, she said.

Still, with the province setting some standards, it is a positive step forward, said Alleyne, and the government’s policy is “a work in progress.” 

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