The Chicago Principles Blur Lines Between Free Speech and Hate Speech

The Albertan government wants to exert influence over post-secondary institutions under the guise of supporting speech protections

(Samantha Mayes)

As Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party unfurls its stiff, right wing feathers across the Albertan prairies, its shadow falls over college and university campuses.

According to the Calgary Herald, Kenney’s Advanced Education Minister—Demetrios Nicolaides—has talked about how applying the famous Chicago Principles would ensure that Alberta post-secondary institutions “are competitive with those in the United States.”

For those unaware, the Chicago Principles are a report from Chicago University issued in 2014 that champions freedom of speech. The authors of the principles write that, on a university campus, “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

What Nicolaides doesn’t understand is that freedom of speech isn’t under attack at post-secondary institutions. Minorities are. According to the “Report on the Uncivil, Hate and Bias Incidents on Campus Survey”, the number of hate crimes on American campuses being reported to the FBI is rapidly climbing, from 194 in 2015 to 280 in 2017.

With hate crimes on the rise in American colleges and universities, staunch freedom of speech protectionist policies could open the doors for radical and hateful groups to begin practicing their intolerance in Albertan institutions too.

While the thought of offensive and likely unwanted groups having their say on campus isn’t exactly ideal, the Chicago Principles do state that there are certain restrictions to what can be said. Anything that “constitutes a genuine threat or harassment” will not be tolerated under the discretion of the university. Although this isn’t saying much, it may give some peace of mind to students who already feel unsafe and might be worried about the dangers new speech policies might bring.

Tolerance of bigotry aside, what’s most unnerving about the government stepping in to dictate post-secondary policy is that it sets a precedent for politicians to dictate what’s being talked about at places of higher learning. Post-secondary institutions aren’t meant to operate under the thumb of whichever government is currently in office, especially if they’re being threatened with performance and compliance-based budget slashes, as is the case under the Ford government in Ontario.

According to the Globe and Mail, Doug Ford of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party has explicitly “promised during the spring election campaign that he would tie funding to free speech on campus.” The implementation of similar punishments has been neither confirmed nor denied by the UCP, which doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the hearts of students who aren’t ecstatic to see the government making heavy-handed changes to their university life.

It seems pretty clear that, if the UCP does develop and implement its own version of the Chicago Principles, it wouldn’t be for the enlightenment or education of Albertan students. It would be more for the purposes of displaying the government’s Orwellian disregard for autonomy.

While this probably isn’t some evil genius-style plot to take over the country and turn us all into a Borg-like conservative hive mind, it’s still a shrewd strategy to exercise some control over universities and their students.

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