Alberta to Require Universities and Colleges to Provide Free Speech Report Annually

Move comes after Frances Widdowson's talk was cancelled by the University of Lethbridge
By Marnie Cathcart
Marnie Cathcart
Marnie Cathcart
Marnie Cathcart is a reporter based in Edmonton.
February 3, 2023Updated: February 3, 2023

The Alberta government has announced that post-secondary institutions will be required to provide reporting annually on their efforts to protect free speech directly to Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides.

Nicolaides told The Epoch Times it became apparent after the University of Lethbridge (U of L) cancelled a planned public lecture by guest academic Frances Widdowson that it was “important to ensure there is adequate compliance to policies.”

“In a situation where speakers are cancelled, it becomes headline news, as we are seeing,” he said.

Nicolaides said he had a conversation with the U of L’s board chair earlier this week, and “took the opportunity to reaffirm” that the province’s priority is protecting free speech on university campuses.

Widdowson was invited to speak at U of L by a resident philosophy professor and intended to cover the topic “How Woke-Ism Threatens Academic Freedom.”

The lecture, scheduled for Feb. 1, planned to highlight four “terrible cases” of “wokeism” that “threaten academic freedom,” Widdowson told The Epoch Times, describing circumstances where various individuals were “cancelled” or otherwise disrupted by U of L.

She said she has been “fighting hard” to promote her view that “universities are academic institutions where you should be able to discuss a diversity of viewpoints and critically analyze contentious topics.”

The university initially defended Widdowson’s right to speak. President Mike Mahon said in a website statement on Jan. 26: “Members of the University community have the right to criticize and question views expressed on campus, but they may not obstruct or interfere with others’ freedom of expression. Debate or deliberation on campus may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or misguided.”

Epoch Times Photo
Demetrios Nicolaides, minister of Advanced Education, is sworn into office in Edmonton on April 30, 2019. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

However, as pressure from students and faculty mounted, on Jan. 30 Mahon reversed the decision to welcome Widdowson, stating the university received “considerable input” and decided against providing space for the former Mount Royal associate professor’s lecture.

“The university must be attentive to the safety of our diverse community,” he wrote in an update, saying the decision was made based on receiving “input” which “confirmed that assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system are harmful.”  Widdowson has been critical of movements such as Black Lives Matter, and has argued that residential schools have had educational benefits.

Widdowson still went to the U of L to deliver her lecture on Feb. 1 as planned, having said she would not capitulate to a “woke mob.” But when she entered the atrium, protesters began shouting and banging drums, which ultimately prevented her from speaking. The Lethbridge Herald reported that a crowd of several hundred people booed, yelled, and surrounded the professor when she tried to speak.

Later that evening, Widdowson provided the same speech via videoconference without incident.

Nicolaides said the university’s decision to cancel Widdowson’s talk went against the province’s position regarding free speech on campus, even if she made past comments that are “controversial.”

“It should be for students, not university administrators, to make the final decision about whether to listen to a speech or not,” he said.

On Jan. 31, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a statement saying the decision to cancel Widdowson’s appearance raised “serious concerns about the University of Lethbridge’s commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”

“Dr. Widdowson certainly does raise disturbing and provocative questions. While many profoundly disagree with her, a university should welcome controversial speakers and vigorous debate, not seek to restrict discourse or speakers,” wrote CAUT executive director David Robinson.

‘More Needs to be Done’

Although all 26 of Alberta’s post-secondary colleges and universities have been required since 2019 to create or implement policies to protect free expression on campuses, Nicolaides said the cancellation of Widdowson’s talk made it “abundantly clear that more needs to be done.”

Epoch Times Photo
Frances Widdowson, a former associate professor in the department of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Frances Widdowson)

That year, Alberta adopted the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression, also known as the “Chicago principles,” which states that universities must promote freedom of debate and protect it from potential restrictions.

The new annual reporting requirement “will monitor compliance,” said Nicolaides, who holds a Ph.D. in political science.

“It will ensure that Alberta universities are strong bastions of free speech.”

He said that during his own 10-year academic journey, he found it was “a necessity to ask questions, look at different viewpoints, and explore different topics” to formulate a final position on a topic.

“It’s an essential skill, and I have some worry that if we don’t provide an environment that promotes free speech and academic freedom, our students won’t develop important critical thinking skills, communication skills, and debate abilities,” Nicolaides said.

In a Feb. 3 news release, the government noted that the MacDonald Laurier Institute released a study in 2022 in which 34 percent of university professors in Canada reported that, regardless of political leaning, they self-censored “because they are concerned about negative consequences if their true opinions on certain topics become known.”

Nicolaides said the details are still being worked out, and the government will be “working collaboratively and carefully” to develop the new reporting system. He said he does not want something “convoluted, complicated, or that adds red tape.”

There is no time frame for the plan, but the minister said he expects to have a consensus on what will be required to be reported to the government before the end of the year.

UK Model

Nicolaides noted that the United Kingdom has moved forward with a type of “free speech ombudsman” which he understands to be a “quasi-independent office of the government with investigatory power to explore instances of free speech violations on campuses.”

In May 2021, the UK government introduced what it called a historic bill that “will require universities and colleges registered with the Office for Students to defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing.'”

Under the law, student unions will have legal duties to take reasonable steps to also “ensure lawful freedom of speech.”

“Other countries are actively engaged in the conversation of free speech on university campuses and developing solutions,” Nicolaides said.

He said that for now, the focus in Alberta is on developing of the annual reporting requirement as a first step, although the government may look at other options in the future “if necessary.”

“It’s foundational to the mission of higher learning. Going back to the first formations of a university in ancient Greece, the primary purpose was a place where different ideas come to be debated and discussed.”