Most Albertans agree that free speech is fundamental to protecting the exchange of ideas in our educational institutions, especially at post-secondary campuses. However, support varies on how the government should intervene in the matter, according to a recent survey.
An online survey of 1,002 Albertans by Leger found that 80% agree or strongly agree that universities should mandate free speech. But, less than two-thirds (64%) support the province making changes to protect free speech at post-secondary institutions.
“There really is an appetite for letting speakers and professors speak their minds on campus . . . there’s 81% who say universities should make sure that all topics and points of view are allowed, and I think that’s [a powerful] message,” said Ian Large, executive vice-president for Leger in Alberta.
The survey results follow the recent controversy surrounding former Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson, who planned a contentious talk at the University of Lethbridge on residential schools.
MRU fired Widdowson in 2021 after she questioned the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s labelling of residential schools as an act of genocide.
"I understand past comments made by this speaker are controversial, but I believe it is important for our universities and colleges to foster a strong culture of free speech and diverse viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are deemed controversial, or even offensive, barring speech intended to incite hatred or violence of course," said Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides in a statement.
"It should be for students, not university administrators, to decide whether to listen to a speech."
The minister clarified his comments should not be construed as agreement with any past statements made by Widdowson. However, Opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley said Nicolaides’ position "troubles" her, given the past comments by the controversial academic.
Widdowson planned speech drew large swathes of opposition to the campus as roughly 2,500 students petitioned to cancel her address. She intended to speak on “woke” university policies and their threats to academic freedom.
UofL then rescinded the space previously offered to the former professor in solidarity with the victims of residential schools and in support of reconciliation.
The protest prompted the UCP to pledge to implement ‘free speech report cards’ for public universities.
“Post-secondary campuses are where learners [can] develop critical thinking, communication, and debate skills. For that to occur, students must be able to engage with different ideas and viewpoints,” said Nicolaides in a statement to Rebel News.
“Earlier this month, I announced new measures to protect free speech on our post-secondary campuses. New reporting requirements for post-secondary institutions will provide transparency and allow the government and the public to assess the overall performance of free-speech policies on campuses,” he said.
“I will continue to explore other steps our government can take to protect freedom of speech on campus.”
Under former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, the province instructed its 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions to either endorse free speech guidelines known as the Chicago principles — released in 2014 — or develop a separate, consistent policy. All institutions complied with the provincial government's deadline of December 15, 2019.
But according to the Leger poll, post-secondary students appeared unresponsive to the measure compared to other Albertans.
While 64% of poll respondents support Alberta protecting free speech on its campuses, only 57% of people aged 18-to-34 share that opinion. In contrast, two-thirds of residents aged 55 and older supported the measure.
“Much of the pressure to limit speech on campus, to bring these issues to the fore and to be conscious of the audiences and the lived experiences of the audiences, tends to be concentrated with younger people,” said Large. “We didn’t break it up specifically, but I’m going to bet that it’s particularly concentrated with students in that age category as well.”
The poll found a starker difference when accounting for partisan support between NDP and UCP supporters.
While most decided voters want to see Alberta’s government intervene on the matter, likely UCP voters outweigh their NDP-leaning counterparts by 78% to 53%.
“It’s by no means a slam dunk that the conservative side of the ledger is pro-free speech and the progressive side thinks there should be controls on speech,” said Large. “You still have 53 percent of NDP supporters say that the government should move more strongly to protect [free speech]. . . that speaks volumes about the issue.”
Nicolaides also said that it speaks volumes that over 50% of NDP voters support government intervention to protect free speech on campus.
“Upholding free speech is not a partisan issue, and it shows that it truly is only a vocal minority trying to limit speech that they deem controversial. Albertans rightfully recognize that we already have limits to free speech in Canada. Section 319(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada makes it a criminal offence to communicate statements that incite hatred against any identifiable group publicly,” said Nicolaides.
“Further, they understand the need to uphold freedom of speech below that threshold so that students and Albertans alike can develop critical thinking skills by engaging with different ideas and viewpoints.”
Across the board, young people showed more caution than their older counterparts about free speech at post-secondary institutions.
Seventy-three percent of respondents aged 18-to-34 said all viewpoints, except hate speech, should be welcomed on campuses. However, older demographics supported that statement at over 80%.
Further, 53% of respondents in the younger age group added that controversial views should be barred from post-secondary, while older groups supported that sentiment in the mid-30s to low-40s percent range.