Vancouver Sun, 02 March 2000, p. A19
by Andrew Irvine
A philosopher chastises the University of British Columbia for waffling on issues of free speech in the recent fracas involving the debate over abortion.
Is tolerating hate speech ever beneficial?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is Yes. But because we are so often reminded of the many potentially harmful consequences of hate speech, we sometimes forget that allowing people to speak their minds has its benefits.

For example, although hate speech sometimes advances the goals of its advocates, it more often effectively identifies the hate mongers. And having done so, it allows us to take issue with what they say.

Who among us would vote for a Holocaust denier such as Ernst Zundel if he were to run for our local school board? How many of us would elect Jim Keegstra to represent us as our MLA? Not many.

In fact, were they to run, Zundel and Keegstra would receive far fewer votes than the largely anonymous names and faces that we sometimes support as part of a local electoral slate, or that we support because we are dissatisfied with a current incumbent.

Simply put, we know what Zundel and Keegstra stand for. And it is because we, as Canadians, have allowed them to speak their minds that we recognize they don’t represent either us or our values.

Outlawing hate speech means that it is harder to discover just who the hate mongers are. It is not a coincidence that many of those who advocate stricter laws banning hate literature also advocate the increasing use of surreptitious surveillance to help law enforcement agencies root out such people once they are forced to conduct their business in secret.

In contrast, if we as a society want to know who they are, why not simply let them tell us?
Permitting hate speech also forces us to pay attention to social injustices, and to confront and address hateful stereotypes. For example, denials of the Holocaust have been a great spur to the careful historical documentation of Nazi atrocities. They have also encouraged the pursuit and prosecution of war criminals and the commitment of resources to fight racism and all manner of other prejudices against minorities.
These are no small benefits. As the great 19th century defender of free speech, John Stuart Mill recognized, truth lapses into complacent dogma when it faces no quarry from falsehoods, and complacency often leads to inaction.

It can also be more difficult to identify hate speech than we are sometimes lead to believe. For example, last November, a number of UBC students were caught on videotape overturning tables and ripping up the posters of a highly publicized anti-abortion display. By way of justification, some of these students have claimed that the display’s controversial comparisons of abortion to the Holocaust and to lynchings of blacks by the Ku Klux Klan constitutes hate speech. And it is for this reason that they believe that the display should not have been allowed on campus.

But if something as central to our political culture as the debate over abortion is to be curtailed in this way, surely many other controversial presentations will also have to be classified as hate speech. Controversial comments about immigrants, or about religious groups, or about the gay and lesbian community might all end up being be classified as hate speech.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tolerating the views of others, it is too easy to think that everyone deserves the right to free speech, provided that they don’t disagree with our own most cherished views.

How has the UBC administration reacted to this event? Unfortunately, rather than come to the defense of its students’ free speech rights, UBC has decided to take a largely “hands off” approach. In documents filed in court last week, UBC stated that it would take “no position” with respect to those students who requested that an injunction be granted to protect their right to free speech while on campus.

With regard to larger issues, however, UBC has taken a position. And for anyone concerned about free speech rights on campus, it is not an encouraging one. Not only has the University declined to assist its own students in defending their free speech rights, it has also taken the position that, while on campus, students have only those free speech rights that the University may choose to extend to them.

In the words of UBC’s lawyers, “UBC recognizes the Plaintiffs’ contractual right to conduct presentations of this or other types pursuant to the terms of any license granted by UBC. UBC does not agree that in conducting the presentation the Plaintiffs are exercising any other contractual, common law, or constitutional rights as alleged in the Statement of Claim.”

It goes without saying that institutions such as UBC have long enjoyed the right to enforce place, time and manner restrictions on public displays and demonstrations. Just as guarantees in favor of freedom of information don’t mean that I have a right to read your private mail, guarantees in favor of free speech don’t mean that you have the right to disrupt my classroom lecture, or to insist that the University allow protesters to speak whenever and however they choose. One person’s right to free speech doesn’t translate into another person’s obligation to listen.

But neither does it follow that students have no rights to free speech, other than those licensed to them by the University. In making the claim that, while on campus, students have no “contractual, common law, or constitutional rights” other than those granted to them by UBC, the University has gone well beyond its right to enforce place, time and manner restrictions.

In taking this position, UBC runs the risk of compromising its central mandate, namely its duty to encourage the advancement of knowledge. And as such, the University’s position can only serve to further chill expression rights at UBC and on other university campuses across the country.

Andrew Irvine teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

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