The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedoms of speech, religion, the press, and assembly. More is the pity that so many nations and their institutions (including some in the US) fail to emulate this gold standard.
Sadly, this also applies to universities in Canada and elsewhere, several of which have come under fire for subordinating free and open debate to the censorship of opinions deemed offensive by faculties, administrators, students, and others who weigh in from time to time.
Fortunately, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is following Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s lead by attempting to restore freedom of speech to his province’s universities. One can debate whether the policies of these provincial governments go far enough and how they might have to be tweaked to be more effective. But Emma Graney, writing in the May 6, 2019 edition of the Edmonton Journal, seems to question why free speech policies are even necessary. Indeed, she prefaces “free speech policies” with the adjective “controversial”, which is most assuredly her way of expressing disdain for them. She is right as far as it goes. The idea of free speech in and of itself has become controversial, although this is more an indictment of our society, with its intolerance of differing views, than of free speech principles generally.
Suffice it to say, Graney frets that the Kenney government’s requirement that Alberta post-secondary institutions adopt free speech policies (or risk losing provincial funding) will allow the expression of “unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive” speech on campus. Exactly! Even flat earth society advocates and racists, as well as celebrities, might be granted platforms, according to Graney. But so what? Since she brought it up, let’s look at flat earthers, racists, and celebrities.
Fortunately, free societies permit us to be wrong, which is fortunate given human imperfections. Best to respect a flat earther’s freedom by letting him have his say, absurd though it may be. Those who object are free not to attend his lecture. Or they can attend and provide counterarguments during the question and comment session following the presentation. They can also peacefully protest outside the auditorium. Where applicable, they may cancel their memberships with the campus club who invited the flat earther and demand their membership fees be refunded (prorated?).
Besides, allowing a flat earther to speak provides a splendid opportunity for those of us who are flat earth deniers to correct him, while simultaneously feeling good about ourselves because we are “on the side of science”.
It is also imperative to be aware that censors are bullies who will keep coming, not stop with the deplatforming of flat earthers. They will be emboldened by their success and try to silence others whom they deem objectionable, including racists, real or imagined.
Like flat earthers, racists have a right to express their views, however offensive or erroneous, and the rest of us have an equal right to offer counterarguments. Maybe such counterarguments can convince some of these racists that they are wrong. They will certainly be exposed to conflicting views if others are willing to debate them and have opportunities to take them on. But accusations of racism also get murky and one is reminded of the bad joke defining “racist” as a conservative winning an argument against a liberal. The liberal, presumably unable to win on intellectual merit, is compelled to impugn the character of his adversary, thereby winning by foul means. The “racist” epithet, like “Nazi”, “fascist”, or “white supremacist” is thrown about so liberally (no pun; ok, maybe the pun is intended) that it no longer has any connection to what it traditionally meant. When the accusation becomes commonplace, people may stop taking it seriously, which becomes problematic when a real racist or Nazi or whomever shows up and is greeted with indifference, instead of being held to account with cogent counterarguments.
Furthermore, it was one thing when anti-Semitic Nazis committed genocide against Jews and Gypsies, murdered scores of other innocents, violated the sovereignty of other nations, and committed other horrific acts of evil. It is something else again for someone to merely express concerns about illegal immigration, fraudulent refugee claims, open boarders, mass migration, an inability to properly vet newcomers, and the flooding of an economy with poorly educated unemployable people, perhaps some with little command of English or French, even a few who are criminals or terrorists. Unable to contribute to the economy or integrate into Canadian society, they become a drain on an overburdened welfare system. Yet such concerns in our politically correct society also get one labelled a “racist” and cowed into silence, even equated with Nazis for good measure, and perhaps fired from a job, accused of hate speech, or kicked off Twitter and Facebook.
Like members of any group, some celebrities will be sterling intellects, others will be ignoramuses, and many will fall between these extremes. But all of them must always enjoy rights to express points of view, however erroneous, outrageous, or offensive, just like the rest of us.
Finally, Emma Graney’s free speech rights give her every right to criticize free speech policies. But she misses the danger and certainly the irony. Free speech is just as much the media’s lifeblood as it is the universities’, and opposition to free speech policies is at cross-purposes with her best interests as a journalist. Does an ideological bias impede her view of the bigger picture?
On a concluding note, the domino theory, historically validated in the geopolitical sphere, applies not only to jingoistic nations, but also to individuals and groups who will intimidate and push until there is resistance. Best to stand up to these free speech opponents, preferably at the outset, with an unequivocal defense of free speech. What may seem trivial (deplatforming flat earth theorists) may quickly descend the slippery slope to the pernicious (false accusations of racism in order to silence adversaries). Say what you will about Premiers Ford and Kenney, and about their governments; at least they have the courage to confront bullies who would deprive universities and the broader society of our most basic freedom. Whether they succeed remains to be seen.