Provincial Board Statement on Free Speech Directive

As prepared by the OPIRG Provincial Chapter Support Collective


26 November 2018

RE: On Freedom of Speech and University Policies Against Dissent

To our comrades and beyond,

The Provincial Board of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group Network has discussed at our recent Annual General Meeting the actions taken by the Ford Government to establish a policy directive for universities and colleges on so-called ‘free speech’. We reject, as a starting premise, that the policies which our institutions are being pushed to implement have anything to do with free expression. Instead, we would assert that the Ford Government and those who agree with them seek undermine expression, dissent, and freedom. Moreover, we know which communities will be most harmed by this loss of free expression: already marginalized, directly affected communities. Real free speech is a freedom from state repression and from systemic oppression by the status quo.

We know what real free speech is.

Attempts to co-opt free speech have been made the far right for decades. For example: failed Hamilton Mayoral candidate and neo-Nazi Paul Fromm has been trying to hide behind concepts of free speech to promote white supremacy on campus since 1967. Now countless others have rallied around figures like Jordan Peterson and Gavin McInnes to do so again. Where Fromm has failed (time and again), these more recent figures have won ground as they force the Left into a defensive position. But we will not take such a position and will return to the ideals that have always kept fascists at bay: Free speech is important but real free speech is freedom and protection to express for those suffering under regimes of systemic oppression and state repression.

At OPIRG Network, we want more free speech, not less, on campuses and in our communities. We want a world where we can express ourselves and our communities can express themselves without the fear of state repression, police violence, and quashed dissent. Marginalized, directly affected communities are those with the most need of all for free expression. What else is an action by an Indigenous community to refuse exploitation of the land by the state if not also free expression? What else is a community protesting against the violation of and violence towards Black lives if not free expression? What are Trans and Queer communities doing when they defend their rights and existence if not using free expression?

Free expression and speech to us means that our communities are free to engage in struggles towards liberation. This is the basis of even the most liberal of struggles and of every struggle for civil rights and beyond. To truly express freely is to dissent from the State when we need to and from the status quo that holds us back--which we do here in our Network, in our communities, and in our lives every day.

We don’t want the Government’s boot.

So then if that is what we want, what is wrong with this policy on university and college campuses? First, it explicitly calls for the repression of dissent. Instead of being free to clash and debate in the classroom and the streets, we are being forced by the State to allow forces of the status quo to just do what they want without response. Some mouths are taped shut so that others can be free to say and do as they please. So, rather than free speech, this policy promotes freedom from consequences. At least, for those who dream of a world where marginalized communities can neither be heard or stand up for themselves.

Second, it bases its entire notion of free speech on a system that isn’t even part of the colonial Canadian narrative. By embracing the Chicago Principles, we see a distinctly American focus being brought to bear here in so-called Ontario. This is especially true when you consider that these principles and similar legislation that relies on them in the United States are found to be deficient in the same ways in which we have raised the alarm. The American Association of University Professor’s notes regarding similar legislation to that crafted by Ontario:

But the highly specific measures advanced by [similar] legislation suggest that its primary goal is not to enhance campus free speech but to protect conservative voices. It is ironic that, in insisting on outcome rather than process, so-called champions of campus free speech mirror the forms of political correctness they purport to denounce.

Third, this policy empowers government-run, neoliberal research outfit, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (or HEQCO) to become the actual arbiters of campus free speech. This unelected arms-length body of the state, run by a corrupt ex-university president, are the people who will get to decide how ‘free’ a campus is. So, we fear, they will decide that freedom means freedom from criticism and consequences for not just the far-right, but also business interests in mining, the military, and other areas that our members are highly critical of.

So, what we have here is a policy that promotes freedom from consequences, builds off of American legislation that is designed to only protect conservative voices, and will be run by technocrats and rich administrators. How in the world is this what anyone would consider free?

We want real freedom.

OPIRG Network has taken the position that we cannot be defensive any longer. We cannot wait for the State or some mechanism to protect us. It is clear that this is the logic being employed by the far right and by corporate interests to silence progressive movements on campus and off.

We do have a free speech crisis. One created by governments like that of Doug Ford to repress dissent and give a free pass from social and other consequences to conservative and far-right voices. One that has been taken up by our supposed allies on the Left, who are willingly allowing a narrow definition of ‘free speech’ to empower the far-right to muzzle our dissent with enhanced legislation and criminalization on our campuses. Now is the time to take back our speech, resist as we can on our campuses, and hold the line with our communities. We will not give up our freedom of speech, our capacity to dissent, and our will to resist. We will continue to resist corporations on campus and those who want to bring harm to our communities. We have an inherent right and responsibility to do so

We will not stop because our ideas and our actions will win.
For more research, education, and action. For freedom and liberation for all.

In solidarity,

The Board of Directors of the Provincial Network of OPIRG.