How Ryerson Failed Margaret Somerville

September 2006

If there were a medal for the year's limpest defence of free speech, Ryerson University would take it in a walk.

The Toronto institution is under fire for giving an honorary degree to Montreal ethicist Margaret Somerville. Opponents say Prof. Somerville is unworthy because she opposes same-sex marriage, a position held by roughly half the population of Canada. Student politicians and gay activists have called her homophobic and accused her of spreading hate. A university that truly respected free expression would have issued a ringing retort, defending Prof. Somerville and its decision to honour her. Instead, a Ryerson committee came forth with a press release saying, in effect, that it was stuck with giving the professor her degree.

On the one hand, Ryerson defends free expression. "If we withdraw the award, then we demonstrate that as a university we show tolerance for some contestable views but not others," said the awards and ceremonial committee of the university's academic council. "Consequently, to rescind the award would raise basic issues of freedom of speech in an academic environment." Not exactly Edmund Burke, but so far so good.

On the other hand, the committee goes on to say that "many of us disagree strongly with some of her opinions" and that they had been "unaware" of her views when they decided to give her the degree. If they had known those views, it would have given them "serious pause before approving the award."

Imagine the position this puts Prof. Somerville in. If she appears at the university's convocation ceremony on Monday, she will be accepting an honour from an institution that has said publicly it is not really sure it should be giving it to her in the first place. "Why would you let a university confer an honour on you that thinks you're a bad person?" Prof. Somerville said earlier this week, agonizing about whether even to attend the ceremony after Ryerson's mewling statement.

Prof. Somerville is not a bad person. Far from it. A professor of medicine and law at McGill, and founding director of that university's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, she is a leading thinker on ethical issues who has published thoughtful articles, essays, books and newspaper commentaries on issues ranging from euthanasia to reproductive technologies to whether it's wrong to kill baby seals. This year she is to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto.

Her views on the sanctity of life are strict. She opposes assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research and late-term abortion. But there is no trace of hate or bigotry in her carefully argued writings. She opposes same-sex marriage (but not same-sex civil unions) because she thinks it erodes the role marriage plays in child-rearing. "I believe children have the right to a mother and father, and preferably their biological parents," she says. That may strike liberal-minded people as off-base -- many same-sex couples make excellent parents -- but it hardly makes her a raging homophobe.

The reality is that many Canadians have qualms about same-sex marriage. This newspaper happens to strongly support it, but it is an earth-shaking change, and people should be allowed to question its implications without being dismissed as bigots. That is what Prof. Somerville's critics are trying to do to her by protesting against her honorary degree: to silence her by making her out as a hatemonger. Their campaign is the essence of political correctness, the campus movement that makes targets out of those who dare to express "incorrect" views.

Receiving a previous honorary degree from the University of Waterloo in 2004, Prof. Somerville warned graduates that the plague of political correctness on university campuses "can make people fearful to speak out as they should for what they believe." Now she herself has become the victim of that plague. Shame on Ryerson for failing to defend her.