Justice Centre submits proposal for legislation to protect free speech on campus

The Justice Centre today expressed support for the Alberta Government’s pledge to hold public universities responsible for protecting free expression on campus.

To support this pledge, the Justice Centre has submitted a policy paper to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. The paper includes specific suggestions on amending the Post-Secondary Learning Act, to optimize the protection of expression, discussion and debate on campus.   

This draft legislation, “Empowering Free Inquiry: An Act to Protect Free Expression at Alberta’s Public Colleges and Universities,” proposes a model by which the Government of Alberta could make good on its promise to protect the paramount value of free expression in the context of academic life at all of Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions. The legislation would ensure that public spaces on campus remain open to events and activities, without disruption, censorship or intimidation on the part of student unions, university administrations, or disruptive individuals or mobs, all in accordance with the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The proposed legislation would grant authority to the Minister of Advanced Education of Alberta to investigate complaints against universities, their faculty and administrators for undermining or failing to protect free expression, to form independent councils to investigate and weigh evidence and accusations pertaining to complaints.  These independent councils would report to the Minister.  The Minister will also have the authority under this proposed legislation to levy fines from violating colleges and universities for up to $50,000 for a first offense. 

The Charter protects the right of all citizens to speak, as well as the right of people to hear, listen and consider diverse views.  Censorship, whether imposed by a formal university authority, or by unruly individuals and disruptive mobs, violates the rights of speakers and listeners.  The Charter also protects the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, which are relevant to student clubs and public events.  

In July, the Justice Centre submitted model legislation to the Ontario Government after Premier Doug Ford committed to impose financial penalties on universities that censor free expression. The government announced a new regulatory regime in August 2018 that would give students the ability to report violations of free expression to an ombudsperson, and that would empower the government to fine universities when they are found to have censored free speech on campus.  The Justice Centre applauded these regulations as a step in the right direction, despite not meeting all of the Justice Centre’s recommendations for robust protection of free speech on campus.

“This draft legislation urges Alberta legislators to build and improve upon the work done in Ontario, by providing even more protection for the fundamental freedoms that make it possible for universities to carry out their mission and provide students with the robust and rigorous education that they need and deserve,” explains lawyer and Justice Centre president John Carpay.

The Justice Centre invites legislators of all parties to adopt this legislation, making Alberta the leader among all jurisdictions in Canada.  “In so doing, Alberta could simultaneously attract the brightest of scholars and experienced world researchers, signalling that this is the jurisdiction in which the full amplitude of liberty will be given to pursue knowledge and research,” continued Carpay.