The University of Guelph’s Policy Statement on Freedom of Expression, which includes freedom of speech, defines freedom of expression as “the ability to examine, question, critique, investigate, enquire, speculate and communicate on issues without deference to prescribed doctrine”. On our U of G campuses, various forms of expression may be used, including what a person wears, reads, performs and protests.
Freedom of expression embodies a practice that has been, and continues to be, vital to the academic mission of universities, including U of G. Universities are places for the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, where ideas are presented and discussed. Universities were founded on principles of openness, mutual respect, cohesiveness and the freedom to both have opinions and respect differing opinions. Civil discourse irrespective of political, religious, moral or ethical views is a fundamental tenet of universities and university education. As well, excellence in research, scholarship, teaching and learning require the examination and consideration of diverse ideas, methods, beliefs and perspectives.
Academic freedom is a protection afforded to faculty and other instructors that includes the right to examine, pursue, develop, and transmit knowledge and ideas through their research, teaching, service, study, discussion, documentation, production creation or writing without institutional censorship and without deference to prescribed doctrine. Specific language with respect to academic freedom exists in the collective agreements between the University and the University of Guelph Faculty Association (UGFA) and CUPE 3913.
Freedom of expression, unlike academic freedom, does not carry the same professional responsibility and the distinction of quality. Both freedom of expression and academic freedom support the exploration and expression of knowledge, ideas and opinions. However, unlike freedom of expression, academic freedom applies to those with professional academic
Responsibilities who are bound by academic measures of quality, including complying with discipline-specific methods and meeting scholarly standards.
Freedom of expression has never been without limits. Canadian laws set legal boundaries and place limitations on some forms of speech, which are supported by U of G’s policy statement and include hateful speech, incitement of violence, harassment or discrimination, or violation of an individual’s right to privacy.
University policies and employment agreements also set limits, including our Workplace Harassment Policy, Human Rights Policy and the Non-Academic Misconduct Policy. As well, the University retains the right to restrict expression that violates laws, demeans others, creates safety concerns or disrupts the normal functioning of the University or abuses the use of University resources.
The University of Guelph’s policy statement indicates that freedom of expression comes with responsibilities. What does this mean?
Freedom of expression functions most effectively when exercised in an environment that respects the rights of others. Members of the University and broader community are free to criticize, contest and even condemn views expressed by others, but they may not use expression as a direct attack that prevents others from exercising the same freedom to express their views.
How can U of G, which promotes diversity, inclusivity, civility and respect, also permit speech that supports contradictory values?
The University of Guelph has committed to values of diversity, inclusivity, civility and respect, as well as to freedom of expression. There may be times when these values appear to conflict or where a common ground is not obvious. In these circumstances, the University will carefully consider and seek to support a balanced approached in its commitment to these deeply held values.
Can the University of Guelph cancel an event on one of its campuses if the administration or members of the University community disagree with the opinions being expressed?
The Freedom of Expression Policy Statement supports the expression of ideas, including those with which the University and/or U of G community members disagree. Among the roles of U of G is to provide a venue for learning, discussion, discourse and debate, as long as the event does not create safety concerns or disrupt the normal functioning of the University and does not violate applicable legal limits on free expression. The University reserves the right to manage the time, place and manner of expression, and events may need to be rescheduled if concerns over security or other issues cannot be adequately addressed before the intended date.
If an event occurs on one of U of G’s campuses, does the University necessarily endorse the speaker/topic/event?
No. As an entity, the University of Guelph does not hold opinions on social, scientific, political or other issues apart from those pertaining to higher education and academic research. The University’s policy statement focuses on how expression takes place, not on what is expressed. The role assumed by this University is not to adjudicate among different opinions or judgments but rather to help foster open inquiry.
What authority does the University of Guelph have over groups holding events on campus that are not affiliated with U of G in any way?
The University of Guelph must use its limited resources including space and facilities primarily to support its mission of teaching and research. If/when those resources are not otherwise required, the University may make space and facilities available to non-University groups subject to certain terms and conditions. Such events may or may not be supported by University administration, faculty, staff or students. The University’s event/room booking policies give the University discretion to manage and limit external events not sponsored by the University, as they are held on our private property.
It is not unusual for the University to have speakers/groups on campus who are controversial or provoke discussion, as universities are intended to be places that welcome differing opinions and diverse points of view. Public events are open to all, and there are opportunities to engage in discussion. The University may at its discretion manage the time, place and manner of those events or take steps if the University reasonably believes that the expression violates laws, creates safety concerns or disrupts the normal functioning of the University.
If the event/speaker is likely to provoke hostile responses/protests, shouldn’t the University get involved and/or cancel the event?
The University of Guelph does not ban speakers or events based on content or viewpoints. Freedom of expression contemplates expression of ideas that others may find to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrongheaded. In such instances, a balance must be struck among the principles of free inquiry, a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the protection of human rights. The University may take steps if the University reasonably believes that the expression violates laws, creates safety concerns or disrupts the normal functioning of the University.
Are student groups/faculty/staff able to book events/speakers without involvement or approval by the University?
The University has policies regarding the booking of space for University users, which includes accredited student groups, and non-University users. Events and speakers are subject to a risk framework that assists groups in identifying risks associated with a proposed event, and the University is normally engaged as part of that risk mitigation process.
The University does not regulate student events/conferences/speeches based on the invited speaker, topic or content. While the University’s policy statement supports freedom of expression and the ability to invite speakers to campus, people are encouraged to consider that such autonomy and independence comes with a moral responsibility for the consequences of words, actions, events and invitations. As such, we ask that people consult the principles of the U of G community to determine whether an action is consistent with their own and U of G’s values.
Parties wishing to book space or facilities on campus for a speaker or event must do so through the appropriate unit responsible for the space, and costs associated with an event are addressed as part of that process.
Decisions regarding the time, place and manner of an event may include consideration of many factors including the number of anticipated attendees, additional equipment required, and cleaning and security costs. Decisions regarding events with specific security concerns will be considered in a manner that balances the University’s obligations regarding safety and security with the financial impact on University resources including U of G programs.
In its Freedom of Expression Policy Statement, the University reserves the ability to manage the time, place and manner of expression and the use of University resources. Further, if there is behaviour that the University believes violates laws, creates safety concerns or disrupts the normal functioning of the University, the University may take steps to address those concerns.
Why would the University permit a speaker/event on campus that might make people feel uncomfortable or angry?
The University’s policy statement acknowledges that expression of ideas or opinions may result in disagreement or discomfort by and for others. However, both in principle and in practice, there is a general recognition that citizens in a free and democratic society are expected to put up with some controversy. Options available to those who may disagree include sponsoring events supporting an alternative view, organizing a debate or participating in peaceful protest.
What can I do if I feel personally threatened or upset by what a speaker might say at an on-campus event?
University community members can access different kinds of supports depending on need. Concerns regarding personal physical safety should be directed to Campus Community Police. Concerns regarding possible harassment should be directed to the Office of Diversity and Human Rights. Mental or emotional support for students may be accessed through Student Wellness and for employees through the Employee Assistance Program. Concerns by employees regarding workplace safety should be directed to the appropriate supervisor or directly to Human Resources.
The University’s policy statement recognizes protest as a form of expression, subject to the same freedom and limitations as other forms of expression. U of G encourages all who engage in protest activity to do so respectfully and safely. Civility and respect are important to uphold during campus events, including protests.
Does freedom of expression mean people can oppose a speaker’s message by using their own freedom of speech to drown out the offending words?
No. The University’s policy statement provides a balance for those exercising freedom of expression. Individuals are free to criticize, contest and even condemn views expressed by others but cannot use expression as a direct attack that has the effect of preventing others from expressing their views or infringes on the rights of people in the audience to hear a message, should they choose to listen.
Faculty members/instructors and students share a collective responsibility to develop a supportive learning environment for all. Engaging in deliberative, healthy and open debate and discussion should support such an environment. Listening with respect and an open mind, striving to understand other’s views, and respectfully articulating your own views all help foster an inclusive, respectful and safe place to learn. Inside classrooms, faculty members/instructors determine the intellectual boundaries of the topic and decide what discussion lies within or beyond the scope of the course being taught.
I am a professor/instructor. If a student stands up and begins to oppose what I am saying, preventing me from continuing with my lecture, or if students begin debating with each other in class, do I have to allow this under freedom of expression?
To fulfill your role as a faculty member, you hold reasonable authority to manage your classroom. The University offers training on dealing with potential disruptions in the classroom, and faculty are encouraged to take part. The goal is to foster a classroom environment that encourages open academic discussion and dialogue without compromising teaching or learning. Within the classroom, professors/instructors determine the scope of the discussion and determine whether a topic is relevant for further discussion.
I am a faculty member/instructor who often discusses sensitive topics in the classroom. Am I under obligation to “warn” my students about this?
Professors/instructors share a collective responsibility to develop a supportive learning environment for all. If a faculty member/instructor is aware that some of the topics covered in their course tend to be considered sensitive, it may be helpful to provide students with a context in which to understand the discussion and introduce guidelines around classroom discussion. Faculty and instructors should consult the University’s academic freedom policy and consider taking training sessions related to freedom of expression.
As a faculty member/instructor, how do I draw the line between freedom of expression/free speech and disruptive behaviour?
The University desires to foster classroom environments where students feel comfortable and free to express their reasoned views while also recognizing the value of listening to and considering different viewpoints. As mentioned, some faculty find it helpful to introduce their course content and themes at the start of the semester or on the course syllabus. As well, training is provided for faculty and instructors on dealing with disruptions in the classroom. Information is available through Open Learning and Educational Support in the Teaching Support Calendar.
I am a student. May I debate or disagree with the views expressed by a professor or a fellow student in the classroom?
Universities are places for the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, where ideas are presented, critically analyzed, and discussed. Engaging in productive debate is therefore fundamental to a healthy learning environment, and as a university student you are encouraged to engage in critical thinking and discussion.
However, freedom of expression has limits, and the policy statement makes clear that expression that is used as a direct attack, violates laws, advocates hatred, creates safety concerns or disrupts the normal functioning of the University may be restricted.
Professors have the responsibility to manage the time, place, and manner of discussion with respect to course material. Your professor may have outlined some guidelines for classroom discussion in the course syllabus, or may have indicated other appropriate venues for engaging in discussions about ideas presented in class.
In addition, students are expected to adhere to the University’s codes of conduct, which prohibit behaviour in the classroom that obstructs, disrupts, or interferes with classroom learning. Your success as a student depends above all on your own response to the opportunities and responsibilities that the university environment provides.
Student policies are available online at:
I am a student. If I am uncomfortable with topics being discussed in the classroom by the professor/instructor or other students, what should I do?
Universities are founded on openness, mutual respect, cohesiveness and freedom — the freedom of each individual to have opinions and to respect differing opinions. Universities are places for open discussion and free inquiry. Classroom discussion of controversial or sensitive topics that may result in disagreements and discomfort is an important part of exploring new ideas and concepts and supporting a healthy learning environment. As our Freedom of Expression Policy Statement indicates, “debate or deliberation ought not to 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”.
Faculty members/instructors have professional academic responsibilities with academic measures of quality. If a student finds certain topics to be sensitive, they may reach out to the faculty member/instructor.
If I wish to place posters around campus publicizing an upcoming event/speaker, is there an approval process?
The location for the event/speaker must be reserved in accordance with University policies, which may vary based on location. The distribution of posters/advertisements on campus is subject to guidelines, which are available at uoguelph.ca/freedom-of-expression/links
Where can I find more information about the University of Guelph’s policies/practices for bringing speakers or events to campus?
If you are a U of G student, information is available at uoguelph.ca/freedom-of-expression/links
Who can I contact at the University of Guelph to get more information about its freedom of expression policy statement?
The University's policy statement and accompanying information/policies/procedures are available at uoguelph.ca/freedom-of-expression/links