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Blog October 23, 2023

What Happened to Your Commitment to Freedom of Expression, Premier Ford?

On August 30, 2018, your government, Premier Ford, proclaimed it was going to champion free expression. You were quite clear: “Ontario's Government for the People is delivering on its promise to uphold free speech on every Ontario publicly funded university and college campus, Premier Doug Ford announced today.” 

You added, "Our government made a commitment to the people of Ontario to protect free speech on campuses. Promise made, promise kept." 

Your then Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Merrilee Fullerton, added, "Open debate and exchange of ideas are central to university and college education.”

At the time, you gave Ontarians no reason to suspect your commitment to freedom of expression in universities and colleges did not extend to Ontario’s Legislative Assembly and its members. 

Now you have made that clear. Your attack on fellow MPP Sarah Jama for her views on the war in Israel and Palestine exposes a fundamental disregard for her expressive freedom, and by implication for that of other MPPs with whom you disagree. Not only do you denounce her for her position, which is your free expression right to do, you call on her to resign as a member of the Legislative Assembly -- asserting her views “have no place in the legislature and they have no place in this province.“ 

Subsequently, your party has introduced a censure motion, which your government has the votes to pass, that will disallow Ms. Jama from speaking or even being recognized in the Ontario legislature, a form of censorship that prevents her from representing the people in Hamilton Centre who elected her.

It is particularly concerning that you are trying to restrict political speech. Canadian courts have held that political speech deserves the highest order of protection for expressive freedom. In the Supreme Court’s decision in Harper v. Canada (Attorney General) Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote, “This Court has repeatedly held that liberal democracy demands the free expression of political opinion, and affirmed that political speech lies at the core of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee of free expression.” 

Democracy withers when censorship replaces debate and restricts political discourse. As Salman Rushdie noted, “A mature society understands that at the heart of democracy is argument.” Our own Supreme Court has clearly described the broad importance of freedom of expression in R. v Sharp

“Among the most fundamental rights possessed by Canadians is freedom of expression. It makes possible our liberty, our creativity and our democracy.  It does this by protecting not only ‘good’ and popular expression, but also unpopular or even offensive expression. The right to freedom of expression rests on the conviction that the best route to truth, individual flourishing and peaceful coexistence in a heterogeneous society in which people hold divergent and conflicting beliefs lies in the free flow of ideas and images.  If we do not like an idea or an image, we are free to argue against it or simply turn away.  But, absent some constitutionally adequate justification, we cannot forbid a person from expressing it.”

Your desire for freedom of expression to thrive at universities and colleges now seems hollow when you disdain that fundamental freedom for political speech by Ontario’s elected MPPs. I urge you to listen to our Supreme Court that the way to deal with ideas you don’t like is by either arguing against them or simply turning away. It is unacceptable, and a threat to the foundations of our democracy, for the Premier of Ontario to use the power of your majority government to silence an elected member for speech which, regardless of how you and your allies have chosen to label it, is perfectly legal under Canadian law.

October 23, 2023
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