Freedom of Expression

February 7, 2006

Rights with responsibilities: President’s statement on freedom of expression on campus

On Thursday, Feb. 9, President David Naylor will address the university’s Governing Council regarding Freedom of Expression on Campus. The following statement reflects the remarks he will be making on Thursday:

As most governors know, two on-campus events were recently scheduled that proposed to address issues in the Middle East from conflicting perspectives. After ascertaining that the participants agreed to respect the law and honour the university’s policies, the administration allowed these events to proceed. One is underway and ends this week; the second starts next week.

On Feb. 2, the deputy provost and vice-provost (students), Professor David Farrar, issued a widely circulated memorandum on Freedom of Speech and Events Organized by Campus Organizations, directed to principals, deans, academic directors and chairs as well as presidents of student societies and recognized campus groups ( PDAD&C #79, 2005-06 ). A copy of this important memorandum has been provided to each governor this afternoon.

In it, Professor Farrar has made our policies and expectations abundantly clear. He has underscored that the university is very deeply committed to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. At the same time all members of our community are bound by the Criminal Code of Canada as regards hate crimes and by provincial law as regards human rights, and they are expected to respect our policies as they relate to the maintenance of an environment that is inclusive and that is free of discrimination and harassment on the basis of individual attributes such as religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation or gender identity.

University staff have worked closely with the organizers of the two events in question to emphasize that they are ultimately responsible for ensuring that all their invited speakers and participants are aware of the university’s expectations and policies and the relevant laws. The entire university team deserves our collective gratitude for the work they have done not only with the organizers of these two events but in guiding many other events on campus that touch on controversial issues.

These activities will soon take their place as the latest in a long history of on-campus events that have addressed matters of considerable political sensitivity. Through the years the majority of these events have been initiated and led by our students, and the university has always accepted that such events are part of the co-curricular experience. To the extent that these events have engendered debate in the context of strongly held and widely divergent views, they have also reflected the fundamental social role of the University of Toronto. Our openness to such activities reflects our institutional commitment to freedom of speech, a fundamental freedom that has been earned through many generations of struggle and sacrifice, and repeatedly championed by universities in democratic societies. Open debate and engagement of all ideas and issues is at the very heart of the work we do together on our three campuses. Such exchanges drive intellectual exploration, an activity that, in the words of the university’s Statement of Institutional Purpose is “meaningless unless it entails the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges….”

However, freedom of speech also entails responsibilities. Among them is civility. Free expression is meaningless if it simply produces a cacophony of voices, each so bent on overwhelming the other that, in the end, they only drown out the greater good of learning. That is also why generations of academics and students in democratic societies have nurtured the basic right to free expression by promoting other core values: acceptance of diversity, respect for the dignity of others and the right of each person to be a full participant in society.

As well, freedom of expression does not include a right to disrupt others who are assembled freely for their own purposes. The university has further stated that every member of our community has a responsibility “to support and promote its aim of creating a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and rights of each individual.” And, as also set out in our policies, freedom of expression does not include the right to harass people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other element of their identity.

Rhetoric is part of debate. We accept highly evocative modes of speech that aim to raise awareness. On occasion such words may be hurtful to some. However, in keeping with the laws of Canada, the university is not prepared to tolerate maliciously provocative speech that aims to incite hatred against identifiable groups.

While the university allows expressions of views that some may consider extreme, our provision of a forum for such self-expression in no way constitutes an institutional endorsement. We shall not censor or suppress debate, but we do ask that those with strong views recognize the power of their rhetoric to alienate or wound members of our community.

In sum, only by the responsible use of the university’s wide freedoms of expression can we create the maximum opportunities for reasoned, civil and respectful exchanges of views among all members of our community. As we use those opportunities responsibly, we are respecting and upholding the tradition of universities as the social institutions best qualified to accommodate all manner of discourse. Free discourse on campuses in many instances has helped to foster the eventual emergence of understanding, common ground or constructive solutions to important challenges facing society. The University of Toronto is heir to this tradition, and as such, it will continue to defend those principles that sustain its position in the vanguard of intellectual and social debate.

List of Applicable Policies:

All of the policies are available for download from the website of the Office of the Governing Council. Copies may also be obtained from the Office of the Governing Council in person.

  • Statement of Institutional Purpose, University of Toronto
  • Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment, University of Toronto
  • Statement on Freedom of Speech, University of Toronto
  • Code of Student Conduct, University of Toronto
  • Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment, University of Toronto: “It is the responsibility of every member of the University community to support and promote its aim of creating a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and rights of each individual.”
  • Policy on Disruption of Meetings, University of Toronto