That Andrew Scheer Free Speech Promise
You may recall that a few weeks ago I profiled the higher education/science/youth proposals of the various Conservative Party leadership hopefuls. You may also recall that the candidate who eventually won the context, Andrew Scheer, had one proposal that distinguished him from the rest of the pack, to wit:
In addition, Scheer pledges that “public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus” will “not have support from the federal government”. He then lists the tri-councils and CRCs as specific funding mechanisms for which institutions would not be eligible: it is unclear if the ban would include CFI and – more importantly – CSLP. Note that the ban would only cover public institutions; private (i.e. religious) institutions would be able to limit free inquiry – as indeed faith-based institutions do for obvious reasons – and still be eligible for council funding.
Scheer elaborated on this just once in the media, so far as I can tell, telling the National Post on April 19th of troubling trends on campus “a pro-life group having its event cancelled at Wilfrid Laurier University; a student newspaper at McGill refusing to print pro-Israel articles; and protest surrounding University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson for his views on gender pronouns.”
A lot of people are scratching their heads about this. What the heck is that all about? they wondered. Does he actually mean it? And how would that work, exactly, anyway?
Let’s take those questions separately.
What the heck is this about? It is hard to see any pressing cases of people who were simply not allowed to speak led to this statement. The stuff at Wilfrid Laurier was perhaps childish but no one was prevented from speaking. The McGill Daily is perhaps wrong in its editorial policy, but freedom of the press also means the freedom not to publish things. And students at U of T are presumably as free to criticize Jordan Peterson as Peterson himself is free to be an obnoxious jerk.
There certainly have been cases where speakers have been shouted out or prevented from speaking on campus because of protests but not recently (I can think of two off the top of my head: Benjamin Netanyahu at Concordia in 2002 and Anne Coulter at the University of Ottawa in 2010.) If we broaden the complaint to other things like taking down “free speech walls” because of perceived derogatory comments, or preventing abortion rights groups from displaying pictures of aborted fetuses at tabled in busy hallways because it’s gross and upsetting, you can probably come up with stuff that is slightly more recent. But I suspect he’s really reacting to south-of-the-border stuff that happens to make the news up here, in particular the events at Middlebury College, a tony liberal arts school in Vermont where controversial social scientist Charles Murray was fairly violently and crudely prevented from speaking back in January.
(If you want a really exhaustive compendium of perceived slights to free speech in Canadian universities, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms provides one annually in its Campus Freedom Index, the 2016 edition of which is available here).
So if there’s no urgent policy problem here, what’s it about? My guess is that roughly akin to Stephen Harper’s anti-census position. It’s a way of throwing meat to the party’s populist faction without actually adopting a fully populist platform.
Does he actually mean it? Hard to tell, but my guess is that he does, at least to the extent that he wants to be able to have a platform to talk about unaccountable lefty cultural institutions. It’s not a loosely-worded pledge: specific exemptions have been carved out for faith-based institutions (part of Scheer’s base), which I think suggests this isn’t something he came up with on the back of a cocktail napkin. Plus, in his victory speech, he went out of his way to repeat the pledge, which he was in no way obliged to do. And he got a huge cheer from the crowd for doing so. Antithetical to higher education sensibilities it may be, but it plays with the base.
(And yes, it has been pointed out a few times that among the people who might be most put out about this would be the pro-Israel types who try to stop the “BDS/End Israeli Apartheid” rhetoric on campuses, and who were a particular target of Tory woo-ing during the Harper years. I think the safe assumption is that Scheer knows and doesn’t care).
How would that work, exactly, anyway? This of course is the big question, and the one that has most people scratching their heads. Presumably there would be some kind of complaint process: but to whom would the complaint be addressed? What kind of body in Ottawa would have the ability to a) judge whether or not an institution was or was not promoting a culture of free speech and b) the power to order a remedy in the form of full or partial removal of funding from federal granting councils? Does Scheer really think an administrative body could do this? How would institutions not litigate both of these decisions into outer space?
Also, how does Scheer imagine that provincial governments – you know, the ones which actually have the constitutional responsibility to run and regulate postsecondary education – will react to any intrusion into their jurisdiction? Can you imagine, for instance, how the Andrew Potter fiasco at McGill would have escalated if Andrew Scheer had taken Potter’s side? The province, which genuinely lost its mind on the subject for about a couple of days (one major newspaper ran a piece comparing Potter to Rwandan genocidaires), would have gone berserk if Ottawa had tried to meddle.
These complications, in the end, are probably going to be used to create a graceful way to get out of the specifics of the pledge. No government is going to put the University of Toronto’s hundreds of millions of tri-council funding at risk over a spat about personal pronouns, or yank nine figures worth of funding from McGill because it doesn’t like the Daily’s editorial policy on Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine. But it might really want to keep those issues in the public eye for partisan purposes.
So, in the event of a Conservative victory, expect an office to be created that would report on “violations” of campus free speech, no doubt staffed by former authors of the Campus Freedom Index. Money won’t be placed at risk, but institutions would be put on notice. And Conservative partisans would be delighted. Which is the real point of the policy.