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Scheer's sheer ignorance on university funding and free speech

Image: Facebook/CBC News: The National

Andrew Scheer is a man against many things.

In addition to being anti-letting people with uteruses choose if they give birth, and anti-two people with the same genitals getting married, Andrew Scheer is also anti-doing his research before announcing major policies. 

One of Scheer's most lauded campaign promises -- by vocal social conservatives and right-wing commentators at least -- is to cut funding from universities that don't support freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech, in this case, being a stand-in for Speech That Andrew Doesn't Like.

But in the fervour of whipping up his base, Andrew missed the fact that the federal government (the one that he hopes to lead) doesn't fund university operations.

Universities and colleges, like health care, are provincial jurisdiction. Unlike healthcare, there is no federal transfer fund for post-secondary education. No dramatic provincial negotiations. No federal framework.

The federal government transfers money to provinces via the Canada Social Transfer, which is split amongst "social assistance and social services, and early childhood development and early learning and child care," in addition to post-secondary education. Scheer is at least two steps away from deciding how much funding each institution gets.

Post-leadership-convention Andrew, likely having been taken aside by someone who understands how this all works, has tightened his message. He now claims that if elected PM he would refuse research grants to academics on campuses who don't protect his version of freedom of speech. But even there, Scheer's promise is sheer fantasy.

Imagine this: an anti-abortion group invites a speaker to campus who compares abortion to the Holocaust or the lynching of Black people. They mount giant posters that juxtapose supposed dead fetuses with piles of dead Jewish people and dead Black people hanging from trees. (This actually happens.) Students protest and the event is cancelled, or they attend the event and shout down the speaker.

Scheer wants to protect individual rights to make racist and outrageous comparisons, free of criticism or interference.

Under Scheer's plan, his government would have to call the staff at each granting agency and tell them to direct professors to do the following: rather than deciding which research is worthy of an Engineering and Science Research Council (NSERC) grant, for example, everyone who is from a particular university be removed.
 The process of anonymous peer review would no longer be possible. Canada's research system would be fundamentally changed for the worse.

Scheer would also have to convince scientists, serious humans whose lives are rooted in fact, that retribution and spite are now more important to decide grants than scientific inquiry, novelty, and importance.

Even then, Scheer's interference in research wouldn't actually stop students from their activism.

Most events that happen on campus (and the protests that can follow) are organized by autonomous groups funded by students, and are democratic -- which means that each year, students vote for who they want in office, and by extension what they want them to do, what groups they want them to fund or otherwise support, etc. They are kept accountable via general meetings, and usually, can be impeached. Professors are protected by academic freedom: in this case, a protection that ensures government cannot punish them in the exact way Scheer wants to.

Free speech means that citizens get to say whatever the hell they want short of hate speech, without being incarcerated or having their printing press seized by the government. In response, people are allowed to be mad, they can scream and yell. Institutions and groups are not obligated to fund your group, or pay your speaker fees. They don't have to invite you to their institution or event.

Blocking large posters of dead "fetuses" with bigger banners, or not allowing that imagery on campus -- that's free speech at work. Shouting down a prof who refuses to acknowledge transgender people who don't identify as a man or a woman, or drowning him out with air horns, is also free speech.

A prime minister who threatens to pull the research funding of an institution that doesn't deal with contentious issues just the way he'd like would be a profound attack on free speech. No amount of free speech doublespeak changes that fact.

Image: Facebook/CBC News: The National

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