Image via National Archives at College Park, via Wikimedia Commons.

On November 30, 2018, Trent University’s Board of Governors approved the new Free Speech Policy, implementing the right to “freely examine, investigate, speculate upon, debate and comment on issues and ideas including the right to criticize popular points of view and society at large.” In August 2018, Premier Doug Ford had ordered all provincially funded post-secondary institutions in Ontario to develop policies protecting the right to free speech on campus. Ford’s government set the deadline January 1, 2019, giving colleges and universities a narrow timeframe to develop the policies. Colleges and universities that did not comply, or did not meet the deadline, would suffer a reduction in funding.

According to the new policy, Trent “does not excuse hate speech, defamation, slander, or actions or speaking which is not compliant with the Human Rights Code; the Criminal Code of Canada; provincial regulations and Trent University’s Violence and Harassment policy.” At first glance, it seems fair enough. However, the vague details overall insinuate that the policy could sway in any direction according to Trent’s discretion.

For a university that prides itself on being inclusive, welcoming students across the world, this policy has the potential to be a particular threat to marginalized students. The policy proposes that Trent encourages “difficult” and “offensive” opinions from students and faculty to engage with the university’s values of education. Alternatively, Trent claims that “students, alumni, faculty and staff are engaged global citizens who are catalysts in developing sustainable solutions to complex issues.” This implication reflects a progressive approach to learning, which will be slowed down or halted by inviting harmful opinions into safe learning spaces. Offensive or ignorant opinions far too often disrupt classroom learning, rather than advance it. Furthermore, what some may consider mere “opinions” can, in reality, contribute to systemic racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of hate violence. It is not an opinion to attempt to deny another person of their human rights and existence.

Given the new policy, the fine line between free speech and hate speech is increasingly blurred. Trent’s Campus Violence and Harassment Policy defines harassment as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against any person on campus that is known, or ought reasonably be known, to be unwelcome.” The date of the last revision for this policy was December 5, 2014. With the new free speech policy, Trent’s Violence and Harassment Policy deserves another revision, expanding on what counts as harassment against others and detailing these boundaries to better allow students to feel safe on campus.

Freedom of speech is not a justification for prejudice. Free speech should not be exploited and tolerated as freedom to say anything without repercussions. Certain groups often exercise their right to free speech as an excuse for bigotry. Inviting “difficult” and “offensive” opinions into learning environment only impedes students’ educations, reintroducing outdated arguments that should not even have to be debated in 2019. Furthermore, respect and common courtesy for fellow peers is being claimed to “silence” certain voices. The acknowledgement of human rights and respect for others is not censorship; it is not silencing, nor is it some sort of special accommodation. It is basic human decency.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and friendly debates are welcomed in a learning environment. However, the free speech policy is evidently not aimed at achieving friendly debates between students and faculty. The amendment will devalue safe spaces and increase the platform for controversial groups, which will effectively reduce – or erase – one’s responsibility and accountability for infringing on hate speech.

The policy also claims that it does not attempt to protect its students from harmful or offensive ideas, which brings into question the implementation and continued existence of safe spaces. Safe spaces on campus are places for students to gather and feel welcomed and included, without criticism or conflict. The Positive Space Program at Trent follows an identical approach. The Positive Space Program serves to provide locations for students, staff, and faculty who identify as LGBTQIA2S+, where individuals can receive support and information on LGBTQIA2S+ issues. The aim of the program is to make Trent’s campus “more inclusive and comfortable” for all members of the community.

Safe spaces are often considered by some groups to be a “threat” to the right to free speech. With this new policy, safe spaces may no longer be recognized.

Lindsay Yates, the Vice President of Campaigns and Equity on the Board of Directors for the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA), has addressed some concerns about the new policy.

“Universities are autonomous, and the government demanding all universities to essentially implement the exact same policy is majorly problematic.”

Lindsay also stated, “In regards to the final policy, I think it is a lot better than the first drafts I read,” saying that she finds one particular section “worrying,” regarding “the notion of ‘accompanying responsibilities’ and how those could have been outlined and elaborated on more.”

“I think they listened to some feedback given and some of my own suggestions were taken into account, but others were refused,” she continued, adding that she asked to “be informed of all changes made to the draft” as well as any meetings, though she was not.

Given the strict deadline and the threat of taking away funding, it is no surprise that Trent’s revised policy feels like a rushed attempt to appease Ford’s government. In response to Trent’s accordance with the policy, Lindsay said that she wished “that Trent was more critical and would have stood their ground and stood up to the government on this policy.”

The problem with this new policy is that, more likely than not, it will protect the wrong people. It will provide a platform for problematic opinions, some of which will undoubtedly target specific students, or groups of students, and make them feel unsafe or unwelcome on campus. The free speech policy revision is, ultimately, a step backwards.

The date for the next review is listed as November 2021.