Say what? Freedom of expression and academic freedom at Canadian post-secondary institutions

Dan Cantiller
13 min readSep 13, 2020

September 2, 2020

Hand holding a megaphone that is muffled by a Canadian flag
Image credit: Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

In recent years, it appears there have been growing concerns regarding what can be said on Canadian post-secondary campuses. Beyond efforts of those within Canadian post-secondary education (PSE) to adopt more inclusive language regarding gender, sexuality and other individual and group identities, there have been tensions about political activism and discourse within classrooms and other parts of campus. If the purpose of post-secondary institutions (PSIs) is to expand knowledge and learning through teaching and research, and to serve local and broader community needs, one may assume that differences of opinion and perspective might naturally arise. Some might argue that PSIs are precisely the environment most suitable to encounter and examine such differences in perspectives, versus in the rabbit hole of debates on social media behind anonymous avatars. How issues of freedom of expression and academic freedom are both supported and regulated is the focus of this paper. As will be explored in specific cases from Canadian PSIs, the treatment of these cornerstones of democratic PSE have nuanced regard for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). With differences between Canadian universities and colleges beginning to blur, the opportunity to reexamine potential universal Canadian higher education standards for freedom of expression and academic freedom will also be noted.

Definitions and Research Questions

Freedom of expression directly engages our human dignity and is instrumental to democracy, as it encourages the search for truth and open exchange of ideas (Ahmad, 2019). The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees individuals’ rights in the context of their relationship with the government, including their “freedom of religion, expression, and association, and various equality rights” (Thornicroft, 2020, p. 79). As Smeltzer and Hearn (2015) note, the limits of freedom of expression may be hate speech as defined under the Criminal Code, i.e. advocating genocide, inciting hatred that would likely lead to a breach of peace, and promoting hatred willfully (Ahmad, 2019). ­

Academic freedom is a right of scholars to “pursue new ideas, unpopular opinions, and…

Dan Cantiller

Student Affairs professional working in Canadian higher education. Recent Master of Education graduate. Queer. Baritone. Toronto is home. (he/him)