Sharing the longest international border in the world, the United States and Canada are neighbors who share similar cultures, languages, and claims to celebrities like Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, and Mike Meyers, to name a few. One striking difference between the two countries, however, is how institutions of higher education protect free speech.
For example, although US universities have been featured in the media for providing safe spaces, micro-aggression reporting systems, and for experiencing violent protests, the majority of campuses received “green” or “yellow” light ratings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) this year.
Green lights mean that FIRE is not aware of any serious threats to students’ free-speech rights on campus. Yellow lights mean that some campus policies could too easily be used to restrict protected speech. Red lights, on the other hand, substantially prohibit constitutionally protected speech. Of the 449 schools FIRE surveyed for their Spotlight on Speech Codes, they found that 39.6 percent maintain severely restrictive, red-light speech codes.
The good news, however, is that this is the ninth year in a row that the percentage of schools maintaining such policies has declined. In fact, the percentage of public colleges and universities with a red-light rating has fallen dramatically: 33.9 percent in 2017 versus 79 percent in 2008.
FIRE states that because public colleges and universities are legally bound to protect their students’ First Amendment rights that “any percentage above zero is unacceptable,” but they do find the positive trend to be “encouraging.”
Canadian institutions are seeing the exact opposite of this trend.
Similar to FIRE, the Campus Freedom Index — a project of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) — uses specific, measurable, and replicable criteria to assess the “free speech climate” on Canadian university campuses. Their 2017 Campus Freedom Index awarded 240 “grades” to 60 campuses and student unions.
Campuses that have a “clear and unequivocal commitment to free speech on campus,” along with three other factors receive A grades, followed by B, C, D, and F grades for those that do not have a clear commitment to free speech.
Only six Canadian universities received A grades this year. Thirty-eight, almost two thirds of all campuses, received F grades. That's six more than in 2016, and there were zero A grades given to student unions.
These campuses with F grades have, for example, "condoned the obstruction, blocking, disruption or interruption of peaceful events on campus" and "charged students or other people with offenses … solely because of the content of their peaceful expression." St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia received an F for both campus and student-union policies, and their administrators reserve "the right to cancel events if they cause considerable 'emotional harm' to others."
On paper the University of Toronto is not one of the worst offenders, with a stated commitment to free speech. Yet this campus earned an F for practices, given the notorious case of Jordan Peterson, when administrators "urged one of [the] professors to stop repeating his opinions about the university’s efforts to enforce usage of gender neutral pronouns."
Institutions of higher education are supposed to teach young people how to engage in civil discourse and analyze all perspectives, whether they agree with them or not. After all, isn’t the purpose of the “college experience” to grow and expand beyond one’s own worldview?
Students in both the United States and Canada need to realize that it’s their freedom that is at stake: the freedom to say, write, and think what they want.