The answers to these frequently asked questions draw on the University’s Policies, Statements, and best practises. You can click on the questions below to view responses. We hope these responses offer approachable, easy-to-understand answers to what are sometimes complex questions. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that these FAQs are not intended to replace or reinterpret the University’s Policies and Statements. For a rigorous, comprehensive treatment of these issues, it will be important to refer back to the original Policies and Statements themselves.
What is free speech?
Academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of association are among the most important values held in the University of Toronto. The University’s Statement on Freedom of Speech (1992) defines freedom of speech and expression as “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large.”
The Statement continues: “The right to free speech extends to individuals cooperating in groups. All members [of the University community] have the freedom to communicate in any reasonable way, to hold and advertise meetings, to debate and to engage in peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, to organize groups for any lawful activities and to make reasonable use of University facilities, in accordance with its policies as they are defined from time to time and subject to the University’s rights and responsibilities.”
In the University’s policies and statements, and throughout this website, “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” are used interchangeably.
Why is freedom of expression important?
Freedom of expression is vital at an institution like the University of Toronto. Debates, unconstrained by preordained conclusions or threats of exclusion, are fundamental to the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and understanding. As our Statement on Free Speech states:
The existence of an institution where unorthodox ideas, alternative modes of thinking and living, and radical prescriptions for social ills can be debated contributes immensely to social and political change and the advancement of human rights both inside and outside the University.
Outstanding research, scholarship, teaching, learning, and innovation thrive only by examining and testing a variety of ideas, discarding those that fail and improving those that work. The interaction and competition among new or unfamiliar ideas, perspectives, and beliefs stretch our understanding and knowledge, sparking breakthroughs in fields from art and architecture to physics and philosophy.
Are there limits to free speech at the University of Toronto?
Yes. Canadian laws – including the Criminal Code of Canada and the Ontario Human Rights Code – not the University of Toronto, set legal boundaries on speech. Various statutes of Canada and Ontario, as well as the common law, place limitations on some forms of speech. This is true whether the speaker is on a street corner or a campus corner.
The University’s Statement on Freedom of Speech describes how the university might limit or guide the right to free speech, for example, when speech is used as a direct attack to prevent the lawful exercise of speech by other University members or invited guests, or to interfere with the conduct of authorized University business. The purpose of the University depends upon an environment of tolerance and mutual respect. Every member should be able to work, live, teach and learn in a University free from discrimination and harassment. No member of the University should use language or indulge in behaviour intended to demean others on the basis of their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, or disability.
Nevertheless, particularly in cases of dispute and controversy, as the Statement says, “the University’s primary obligation is to protect the free speech of all involved. The University must allow the fullest range of debate. It should not limit that debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech. … [T]he values of mutual respect and civility may, on occasion, be superseded by the need to protect lawful freedom of speech.” “However,” the statement continues, “members should not weigh lightly the shock, hurt, anger or even the silencing effect that may be caused by use of such speech.”
I have read that the right to free speech imposes accompanying responsibilities. What does this mean?
There is another sense in which the rights of free speech, freedom of research, and academic freedom entail certain responsibilities. Particularly on university campuses and at other institutions of research and education, academic and related freedoms depend upon the related notion of academic responsibility. Universities Canada suggests:
Evidence and truth are the guiding principles for universities and the community of scholars that make up their faculty and students. Thus, academic freedom must be based on reasoned discourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peer review.
Standards of academic rigour are set and assessed at the collegial level, among those members of our community who have expertise in a particular discipline – first and foremost, the faculty members, scholars, and students engaged in the relevant discipline. This is the essence of peer review and a cornerstone of modern scholarship. Whether a particular statement meets standards of academic rigour should be determined by an academic’s peers and not an institution’s administration.
Is the right to free speech at odds with the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion?
In this context, it is useful to remember why free expression is so important, especially at an institution like the University of Toronto. Debates are fundamental to the pursuit of knowledge, and social, artistic, scientific, and political progress. Outstanding scholarship, teaching, and learning thrive only by examining a variety of ideas, discarding those that fail and improving those that work. The free expression and exchange of a multiplicity of diverse ideas is a vital condition for the University’s success. As our Statement of Institutional Purpose notes, rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of research “are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.”
Yet, while every member of our academic community enjoys the same rights to free expression, there are times when not every member of our academic community feels equally able to act on those rights. In this regard, the lived experience of individuals in our community is especially meaningful. Some groups have felt marginalized, oppressed, sidelined, intimidated, or targeted with malicious, cruel, or stigmatizing speech. Our Statement on Free Speech warns: ‘members should not weigh lightly the shock, hurt, anger or even the silencing effect that may be caused by use of such speech.’
Weighing one’s speech is thus not simply a moral consideration; it is also part of our collective recognition that excellence is achieved together. Speech or acts that diminish an individual or a particular group diminish us all, by subverting the contest of ideas at the heart of the University’s mission. The University’s policies make clear that we must support and encourage free expression, particularly in those quarters where such expression may be more difficult, by providing opportunities for all members of our community to express themselves, engage with each other, and respect our differences.
Can the University cancel an event on one of its campuses if the administration or members of the University community disagree with opinions being expressed at the event?
No. Part of the role the University plays in our society is to provide a venue for discourse and debate. The University’s Statement of Free Speech is clear: “To achieve this purpose, all members of the University must have as a prerequisite freedom of speech and expression, which means the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large.” Disagreeing with points of view, often strenuously, is common on university campuses.
Furthermore, the University’s Policy on the Temporary use of Space notes:
The lands and buildings of the University of Toronto are private property. The University reserves the right to control access to its campuses, and to the use of its space and facilities. All users of University space are required to comply with all applicable University policies, federal and provincial statutes and municipal by-laws relating to private property, the rights of individuals and the University.
Any use of University space must abide by principles that reflect the University’s purpose, mission and values. One core value is a commitment to freedom of expression and open dialogue. Another value upholds the importance of respect and civility, even — especially — on those issues on which strong opinions are held. Without such an environment, free expression becomes increasingly difficult, debates degenerate, and intellectual advances are held hostage by those who can yell the loudest or intimidate most effectively.
Our community’s physical safety is an over-riding imperative when controversy arises and debates become heated. While the University has — extremely rarely — denied, cancelled, or rescheduled bookings, the bar to do so is set very high and has nothing to do with whether the administration agrees or disagrees with the event’s proposed content. In such cases, the boundaries set by legislation and the physical safety of our community are the institution’s motivating considerations. The University does not permit actions by any groups that cause (or are assessed to have the reasonable potential to cause) threats to the physical safety of members of the University community.
Where can I find the University’s relevant policies regarding freedom of expression?
If an event occurs on one of the University’s campuses, does that mean the administration endorses what is said at the event?
The University itself does not hold opinions on social, scientific, political or other issues apart from those directly pertaining to higher education and academic research. The University’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni may hold such opinions. The role of the University’s administration is not to adjudicate among different opinions or judgements. Rather, the administration’s role is to help realize the mission of the University, and foster open inquiry in its many forms.
What authority does the University have over groups that are not affiliated with the University? Can such groups host events on the University’s campuses?
What is the University doing to protect those members of its community who feel threatened by what they consider hateful, harassing, or threatening speech?
In urgent or acute cases, members of our community should contact Campus Police:
On St. George
- Urgent: 416-978-2222
- Dispatch: 416-978-2323
- Urgent: 911
- Dispatch: 905-569-4333
- Urgent: 416-978-2222
- Dispatch: 416-287-7398
Moreover, U of T has policies and procedures that address discrimination, workplace harassment, and health and safety concerns. We also have a variety of safety programs to support students, faculty and staff, including those offered by the Community Safety Office, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, and the Campus Police on each campus. Any member of our community who feels physically unsafe or threatened is encouraged to seek out these resources.
Can I protest an event?
The Government of Ontario recently issued a guidance on free speech at colleges and universities. Is U of T in compliance?
The University of Toronto’s policy framework covering freedom of speech, freedom of research, academic freedom and related matters is fully consistent with the Government’s guidance. It includes: a definition of free speech; a commitment to the principles of free expression; respect for the laws of Canada and Ontario; a requirement that student and other groups, like all members of the University community, comply with the University’s policies; and confirmation of disciplinary and complaint mechanisms that exist at the University for students, staff, faculty, and other members of the community. The University has been asked by the provincial government to encourage its officially recognized student societies to align their various policies with the relevant aspects of the University’s free speech policy environment, as detailed in this website.