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It’s time for the UCP to really commit to free expression on campus — not with words, but with dollars

By Kristy Koehler, March 26 2021—

Freedom of expression should not be a performative spectacle. Unfortunately, the United Conservative Party government offers platitudes, rather than real action, when it comes to free expression on university campuses.

In a stunning display of nothingness, presumably to appeal to people who can’t be bothered to look past word-salad, the UCP forced universities to adopt the Chicago Principles. Essentially, they demanded universities pinky-promise to care about freedom of expression.

When push comes to shove, the UCP doesn’t actually seem to have a vested interest in truly committing themselves to free expression. Three times I’ve asked Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides when his government plans to put their money where their mouths are, and three times I’ve been told it simply isn’t going to happen.

The Government of Alberta had planned to institute performance-based funding metrics for universities, but in light of the pandemic, delayed their implementation. With the budget tabled in late February, the Ministry of Advanced Education planned to reach out to post-secondary institutions to begin the process of putting performance-based funding into action. 

I can see no better opportunity to ensure free expression thrives on campus than to make an institution’s funding partially contingent on providing an environment where it flourishes. 

During an initial discussion about the implementation of performance-based metrics in January 2020, I asked Nicolaides whether he would consider free speech as one of the metrics. What I got was a spoonful of pablum about how I should go to the Students’ Union and make my voice heard and that there are “opportunities to get involved.”

I asked Nicolaides in June 2020 if the commitment to free speech on campuses extended to faculty as well as students, and whether or not he would commit to one of the performance-based metrics being freedom of expression.

The statement I received just doubled-down on the Chicago Principles.

“Each of our post-secondary institutions have adopted the University of Chicago Principles, or a policy that conforms to the principles, that will ensure freedom of expression across all campuses in Alberta,” read the statement. 

The statement noted that the University of Alberta’s declaration on free expression included the wording that “all members of the university community have the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, view, challenge, profess, and learn.”

Whoop-dee-doo. What is the consequence when free expression isn’t upheld on campus? There isn’t one.

In early September 2020, over the phone, I was told roughly the same thing.

“It is absolutely critical that we maintain and strengthen free speech on campus. It is absolutely essential,” said Nicolaides. “Our campuses must be places of open debate and dialogue, however after being appointed I believed that the approach was to begin a conversion with our university leaders about strengthening free speech on campus. Within a few months we were able to give institutions the flexibility to develop their own policies and they demonstrated their strong commitment to free speech.”

Ensuring that freedom of expression is treated as more than just a buzzword requires the willingness to not only say we’ll defend it, but to do so with actions. 

At the 2021 Conservative Policy Convention, a policy declaration was added to enshrine freedom of expression on campuses — backed up with funds. 

“The Conservative Party of Canada will incentivize federal funding to Canadian universities that have implemented Chicago Principles. Such a mandate would mean schools must abide by and protect freedom of expression as it is described in the Charter. Failure to protect free expression would result in losing federal funding.”

It’s a shame their provincial counterparts don’t have the courage to commit to this type of action. They spent the election pandering to their base with fancy words and declarations about freedom of expression, but when it comes down to it, they’re letting a golden opportunity slip through their fingers.

Perhaps they’re so reticent to act because they know freedom of expression can and should be applied to people of all groups and political persuasions, environmentalists, Communists, Libertarians, Marxists and Conservatives alike — even Bigfoot.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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