There is a startling shift in culture underway across many North American campuses. Where a university used to be a marketplace of ideas, a forum to learn by way of boundless inquiry and exposure to contrasting opinions, many are now fast devolving to resemble a factory-line production instructing students on what to think, rather than how to think. This implicit step-change extends well beyond the walls of the lecture hall, however, to include the climate engendered by the broader university community, not least its own students. For this reason, it is imperative that the student body and all other stakeholders concerned with the delivery of a robust education commit to trading exclusively in the most valuable currency of learning: that of free speech.
As a recent Queen’s alumnus, one who keeps a close eye on campus events in both Canada and the U.S. for the foreshadowing of any prominent social or political issues, I have become quite discouraged with the state of free speech at many institutions of higher education. Two instances of the confused climate are the outcry at U of T over professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns and the recent UC Berkeley protests against controversial speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. The attempts to have Peterson fired and Yiannopoulos banned exemplify problematic themes. Not only is it bemusing that many students appear to hold the opinion that they already know all that they need to – stamping a question mark over their pursuit of a degree – but their willingness to riot denotes a grave irresponsibility. The line that offering someone like Yiannopoulos a platform to talk normalizes his brand of provocative politics is dramatically undermined when protestors throw punches and smash windows, in potentia normalizing violence as a response to opinions deemed objectionable. Though these demonstrators claim to act in the name of tolerance, permitting free expression is tolerance of a higher order, for limitations on speech are an ominous first step towards punishment of thought.
Though I share little common ground with both Yiannopoulos and Peterson on many issues, silencing them would be to deny myself the right to hear and learn from their arguments, or at the very least claim vindication for my own views. Conversely, those who seek to ban contentious speakers from campuses or ostracize peers for holding the “wrong opinion” must question why their own convictions warrant such protection if their reasoning is so universally evident. At any rate, these individuals betray the well-natured intention of the curious student who understands that learning necessarily involves exposure to conflicting perspectives and attempts to curtail speech are an impediment to this end.
My concern is that this misguided crusade of speech suppression could soon impose itself on the Queen’s community: the university is far from immune to this movement, as demonstrated by its recent checkered history on the subject. To its credit, Queen’s does identify free inquiry and free expression of ideas as essential values, and also hosts a statement on “Freedom to Read” online; however, in 2013 a free speech wall was removed by the school due to ostensibly “offensive content”, though no specific examples were cited. The year prior, the university dismissed professor Michael Mason for employing “politically incorrect” language despite an independent investigation finding that he “discharged his duties in keeping with professional standards”. These inconsistencies paint a puzzled story as to the school’s position on the issue of free expression.
It is for this reason that I am petitioning the Queen’s administration to endorse the widely acclaimed Chicago Principles, as outlined in a recent University of Chicago report on freedom of expression. These principles stipulate that a university’s overarching commitment is to vigorous, uninhibited debate, rejecting the notion that it should shield its members from ideas they find unwelcome or disagreeable. At the same time, the report incisively remarks that on-campus speech must still be held accountable to the law’s parameters, signifying that hate speech, harassment and incitements to violence would remain prohibited. Since its release, this carefully-worded manifesto has been publicly endorsed by many US schools such as Princeton and Columbia, so in following suit Queen’s would become the first Canadian university to take this symbolic step. Amidst the backdrop of rampant calls for speech codes at many schools, this is a timely opportunity for Queen’s to showcase its leadership on a contemporary issue of utmost importance.
Free speech is the fundamental underpinning of any society invested in progress because holding space for any and all ideas, even those considered offensive to some, is the most effective filtering system by which to separate valuable from invaluable, good from bad. As young adults engaged in our minds’ cultivation, we should be seeking out opinions that differ from our own – the endorsement of the Chicago Principles will ensure that Queen’s fosters the environment for us to fulfill this ambition.