Ontario has a lesson for NZ on how to deal with universities which constrain freedom of speech

Education Minister Chris Hipkins perhaps has been too busy to notice, but the Ontario government has determined it should force post-secondary schools to discipline students who interfere with “free speech.”

If this be so, we recommend the Minister ask someone to brief him on overseas government responses to publicly funded universities which constrain freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Come to think of it, he might also get a staffer to advise him on how to answer questions we put to him last month about the apparent breach of the legislation which governs New Zealand universities when  Don Brash was banned from speaking at Massey University.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s office is dealing with this sort of campus carry-on by requiring all colleges and universities that receive government funding to publish a “free speech policy” by January 1.

The Ontario government says the policy on free speech will apply to faculty, students, staff, management and guests, and must include a definition of freedom of speech, language defending the idea that universities and colleges should be places for open discussion and free inquiry, and a commitment to not shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.

Policies must restrict speech that is considered illegal under Canadian law but they also must discipline students who interfere. Interference is described as, “ongoing disruptive protesting that significantly interferes with the ability of an event to proceed.

Ford said in a press release that schools “should be places where students exchange different ideas and opinions in open and respectful debate.”

Professor Robert Gordon, who helped write Laurier University’s freedom of expression document earlier this year, is confident the state’s post-secondary institutions can meet the provincial government’s mandate to create updated free speech policies by the end of the year.

He has welcomed the government’s interest in free speech on campus and said most universities and colleges already have documentation affirming its importance in education but some may need updating.

Laurier’s senate approved an updated freedom of expression statement in May, following months of controversy surrounding free speech on its main Waterloo campus.  It says Laurier “unequivocally embraces the principles of free expression required in an academic environment” — even those “that may be deemed difficult, controversial, extreme or even wrong-headed.”

The measures taken in Ontario might usefully be drawn to the attention of tertiary education policy-makers in this country after the banning of Don Brash from speaking at Massey University and the implications for academic freedom.

As Point of Order noted last month, Section 161 of the Education Act deals with academic freedom.

It is declared to be the intention of Parliament in enacting the provisions of this Act relating to institutions that academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced.

For the purposes of this section, academic freedom in relation to our universities includes —

The freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions:

In the performance of their functions, the councils and chief executives of institutions, Ministers, and authorities and Crown agencies “shall act in all respects so as to give effect to the intention of Parliament as expressed in this section”

A question this raised is whether Hipkins is concerned by the apparent breach of the legislation at Massey and whether he intends taking any action on the matter.

If not, whose job is it to require a university to comply with its statutory requirements?

We put those questions to him through a press secretary but received no response.

National’s Paula Bennett, in contrast, replied to similar questions:

“I’d expect every person in a position of responsibility at Massey, from the Vice Chancellor through to the Minister, ensures the university complies with its legal obligations.

“In saying that, my understanding is that the Education Act is administered by Ministry of Education and so ultimately they, and the Minister, would be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act.”

This isn’t a legal opinion, mind you, she concluded.  Just her thoughts.

We suggest she might join Hipkins in checking out how the government of Ontario is dealing with such matters and whether a similar approach should be taken in New Zealand.

Readers should need no reminding that Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas was quoted at The Spinoff as saying Brash’s leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and the views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils “was clearly of concern to many staff, particularly Māori staff”.

Bob Edlin emailed Massey’s PR man, James Gardiner to ask:

Is she saying these staff should not be exposed to opinions with which they disagree? Or is she worried by the way they might react?

Another question concerned her statement that Hobson’s Pledge opinions “are certainly not conducive with the University’ strategy of recognising the values of a Tiriti o Waitangi-led organization”. It said:

I am uncertain why Hobson’s Pledge opinions should be dismissed on the grounds they are in conflict with the Treaty.  Can you identify the words in the Treaty which I have overlooked or perhaps do not properly comprehend?

No replies to those questions have been received.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.