Alberta to require 'free speech reporting' after uproar over controversial academic visit

Controversial academic Frances Widdowson, pictured in the left of this photo wearing a shirt that reads 'Rational Space,' arrived at the University of Lethbridge on Wednesday after days of pushback from students and faculty. Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, pictured in a file photo at right, says new rules are coming on university campuses in Alberta. (Sarah Jones/Lethbridge News Now, Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Controversial academic Frances Widdowson, pictured in the left of this photo wearing a shirt that reads 'Rational Space,' arrived at the University of Lethbridge on Wednesday after days of pushback from students and faculty. Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, pictured in a file photo at right, says new rules are coming on university campuses in Alberta. (Sarah Jones/Lethbridge News Now, Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Alberta will require post-secondary universities in the province to annually report to government their efforts to "protect free speech" on campus.

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said in a statement Friday the province will also continue to explore possible additional steps.

"It is abundantly clear that more needs to be done to ensure our institutions are adequately protecting free speech," Nicolaides wrote.

"Alberta's post-secondary institutions should be bastions of free speech and academic freedom that promote critical thinking."

The new steps were promised by the minister earlier this week. He was responding to reaction to a planned lecture on the University of Lethbridge campus by controversial academic Frances Widdowson.

Widdowson, who made headlines in 2020 for comments she made suggesting there had been an educational benefit to residential schools, had been asked to the campus by a faculty member. But that plan had been met by significant resistance by faculty and staff, with two petitions receiving more than 2,500 signatures.

Initially, the university said it would allow her appearance in line with its policy on free expression, but noted that Widdowson's views were in conflict with the views held by the university, including its stated commitment to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The U of L later changed course and said it would not allow public space for the lecture. Widdowson still showed up on Wednesday but was met with significant resistance and eventually had to leave.

Concerns over university autonomy

Earlier this week, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a statement criticizing the U of L decision, writing that it raised "serious concerns about the University of Lethbridge's commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom."

However, on Friday, CAUT issued a second statement, writing that though it champions academic freedom and free expression on campus, it also defends the principle of university autonomy.

"The government cannot and should not dictate how universities run their internal academic affairs," wrote executive director David Robinson in a statement.

When asked about potential concerns of overreach, Nicolaides said the government didn't write the free speech policies in place at various Alberta universities.

"Now we're simply developing a public accountability and reporting mechanism," he said.

In a statement, the U of L said its mandate affirmed its commitment to protect free inquiry and scholarship while facilitating access to scholarly resources and supporting artistic expression and the free and open scholarly discussion of issues.

"The university will work with the Government of Alberta to learn more about annual reporting requirements and develop plans for implementation," it wrote.

WATCH | Sights and sounds of controversial academic Frances Widdowson's appearance at the University of Lethbridge: 

Details forthcoming

In an interview, Nicolaides said the report cards will be made public annually. The government does not have a final timeline at this point, though it hopes to wrap up the process by the end of the year.

Nicolaides said he plans to sit down with universities and colleges to determine what the reports should look like, adding he did not want to create a mechanism that adds more red tape to an institution. He said it would be likely that the report cards would fall under the free speech policies already in place at various institutions.

"The University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge have similar language where they say that the university should not shield individuals from speech and speech events or activities," Nicolaides said. "That's something that we can pull out and look at in the context of the report card."

Each individual institution will be assigned a score of some kind based on that assessment.

The Opposition NDP previously said that the minister's position on free speech was problematic given the lecture that appeared to prompt it. Speaking Wednesday, NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she believed Widdowson's speech would be an exception to free speech principles.

"As far as I'm concerned, the idea of having someone come and speak at the university, particularly in Lethbridge, to a student body that consists of many Indigenous students about how they somehow benefited from residential schools, is deeply troubling to me," Notley said at the time.

CBC
CBC

The 'Chicago principles'

When it comes to determining the boundaries for speech, Nicolaides said that would be dictated by federal policy.

"I think we take our guidance from those important pieces of legislation and government documents and the interpretation of the courts, and stay within those boundaries," he said.

Alberta has already adopted the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression, also known as the "Chicago principles." Today's announcement comes in addition to those principles.

All 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions were instructed to either endorse the Chicago principles in 2019 under former Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, or develop a separate policy consistent with them. An exception was made for Burman University given its religious values.

The principles are also in place in dozens of universities in the United States and in Ontario. Some critics have said that the principles are overly legalistic and don't actually address what are an ongoing set of problems.

Colin Hall/CBC
Colin Hall/CBC

On Friday, the University of Calgary Students' Union responded to a comment from Nicolaides made earlier this week, in which he said "it should be for students to make the final decision about whether to listen to a speech or not."

"U of L students stood up, held firm, and made it clear that they had no interest in hearing a lecture that denies the genocidal nature of residential schools and the lasting harm these institutions have done to Indigenous peoples. That decision should be respected," the union wrote.

Nicole Schmidt, president of the students' union, said the group felt the government should be focusing on other issues, such as affordability and student unemployment.

"We feel that free speech on campus is not under threat. This is not an issue that we hear from students about," she said in an interview.