(Alexea Johnston, Queen’s University)
In Canada, free speech is not a given. Sections 1 and 2 of the 1982 Constitution Act of Canada grant Canadians a fundamental right to free speech and thought within reasonable limits. What are these reasonable limits? Well, they are further defined in sections 319 (1) and 318 (2) of the Criminal Code to be hate speech and speech that promotes hatred.
In the age of social media, where there is an abundance of platforms to express opinions, post-secondary institutions need to be a centre for true and unbiased free speech. University campuses are rich with a variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences, all with opinions and voices that can contradict each other. For generations, academics have introduced the world to new concepts and ideas that have led to radical social change.
The Free Speech Movement on college campuses is a phenomenon that began at UC Berkeley in 1964. Students protested an on-campus ban of political activity and fought for free speech and academic freedom. By doing this, the students involved cited free speech on campuses as a critical component of the education experience beyond simply an inalienable right.
However, students have faced consequences in the pursuit of free speech. Some have been killed, like in the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Closer to home, in 1970 at Kent State University, four students were killed and nine were injured when the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students protesting US involvement in Cambodia. The massacre was a result of intense pressure from the Governor to silence the protests, but the students refused to relent.
For more recent examples we can turn to Canadian university campuses. Jordan Peterson has become a lightning rod for controversy regarding his views on gender-neutral pronouns. In 2018, Lindsay Shepard, a teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University, showed a clip of Jordan Peterson during a tutorial, only to be punished by the school after students complained. When the issue became public the university had to reverse their decision, but the controversy was irrevocably damaging to Shepard’s career.
Peterson was also the centre of a controversy at Queen’s University in 2018 when, ironically, he guest lectured at a free speech event. His presence on campus sparked a protest which outside of Grant Hall, where the event took place. The protest eventually turned physical when a Kingston community member who had joined the group broke a window.
These events bring to light the subjectivity of Canada’s free speech laws, which offer no definitions or guidelines for identifying when someone’s views surpass reasonable limits and become ‘hate speech.’ Is Jordan Peterson truly citing hate or is he just pushing against an emerging social norm? While many disagree with Dr. Peterson’s ideas, the need to have open conversations and address underlying issues is fundamental to an advanced education. All of us will face people who do not share our views but listening to opposing views and being capable of stating and discussing a counterview is a fundamental skill in most workplaces.
In response to this free speech dilemma, Doug Ford’s administration aims to implement a new free speech policy for Ontario Universities. The purpose of the new policy is to promote open, unbiased discussion among students. Ontario’s Public funded universities, including Queen’s University, have until January 1st, 2019 to participate in the new policy or they risk a cut in funding from the provincial government. Although well-intentioned, the policy does not address the need for an arbitrator to define what constitutes ‘appropriate’ speech.
Canadians need an objective way to measure the impact of free speech. Simply hurting our collective feelings cannot be the standard. Societal views are constantly changing and personal views that seem superior today may not be superior tomorrow. Even when watching old movies, we are quick to realize that our level of tolerance has changed drastically.
Attempts to censor people are not contained to our past. In the past week, we have seen bombs being mailed to critics of Donald Trump, a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and an attack on African Americans at a Kentucky grocery store. These are stark reminders of the prevalence of hate in our society. Now is not the time to stop open conversation: now is the time to expose and engage with it.
Our apparent need to censor and punish those who offer views that may question what we view as societal norms forgoes the opportunity differing perspectives offer to educate and expose. Being uncomfortable with political and social circumstances and then acknowledging and exploring this discomfort results in personal and moral growth. Many of the rights and freedoms we take for granted today started as controversial ideas on university campuses.
Eventually, shifting too far into political correctness will oppress the right others have to freely express themselves, causing frustration among certain groups. The rise of far right political parties in Europe and a reality TV star President in the United States are already reflecting this fact. Universities are the best place to turn that tide by encouraging open, meaningful debate. Constructive conversation is worth so much more than not having our feelings hurt.
History.com Editors. “Kent State Shooting.” History.com, 8 September 2018.
Legislative Services Branch. “Consolidated Federal Laws of Canada, Access to Information Act.” Justice Laws Website, 11 July 2018.
Legislative Services Branch. “Consolidated Federal Laws of Canada, Criminal Code.” Justice Laws Website, 11 July 2018.
McQuigge, Michelle. “Laurier Apologizes to Teaching Assistant Who Aired Clip of Gender-Pronoun Debate.” The Star, 21 Nov. 2017.
Office of the Premier. “Ontario Protects Free Speech on Campuses.” News.ontario.ca, 30 August 2018.
“The Free Speech Movement.” Calisphere, 2005.