Commentary At Free Speech?

April 2007

The National Post recently published a letter from our very own Professor Emeritus Phil Sullivan. Together with Clive Seligman from the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship in London, Professor Sullivan cited the University in no uncertain terms as "dropping the ball" when it comes to protecting your right to freedom of expression. The online version of the letter can be found here.

Whether or not the University is bound by the Charter of Rights entails a whole mess of jurisprudence that we won't get into here. What is clear is that we are a diverse, talented and driven university community - that we are, as the University says, great minds for a great future. Surely the University of Toronto, which houses some of the country's finest scholars and advocates for the protection of civil liberties, does not mean to deny us exposure to conflicting views, the exchange of ideas, the unpopular dissent that is at the heart of a free western democracy?

I invite your comments about Prof. Sullivan's letter, and especially welcome comments as to whether you, as a U of T student, feel free to voice your beliefs in our community without fear of reprisal.

1. JP Says: February 14th, 2007

They’re talking about “forms of expression fall short of the legal limits of hate speech, but nonetheless are harmful to identifiable members of our community…” I think we could use a little context here, i.e., examples? I think U of T is pretty good in terms of free speech. At least, they did pretty well in response to the criticism of this cartoon by The Strand. Read their news release here.

2. P. A. Sullivan Says: February 21st, 2007

To the commentator requesting a “little context” I would reply that any one aware of the history of assaults on free speech in the name of avoiding offense should be deeply concerned about the introduction of such nebulous terms “harmful speech.”

Our original letter to the NP did, however, include a recent example which was the proximate cause of our decision to write. This example, omitted from the published version, stated as follows:

Almost one year ago, in response to some flyers being posted on the campus that depicted one of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and some possibly offensive statements, the administration ordered the campus police to take down the posters and forward them to the police. According to the university’s president the “Toronto Police advised U of T that these fliers did not constitute hate literature, but also advised that the fliers were a ‘point of interest’ for them.”

3. JP Says: February 21st, 2007

Thank you Prof. Sullivan for taking the time to comment on this. Now I certainly see your cause for concern, and frankly, I share the same concern.

4. P. A. Sullivan Says: February 22nd, 2007

I discuss these issues in an essay entitled:

“Are Postmodernist Universities and Scholarship Undermining Modern Democracy”, in “Scientific values and Civic Virtues,” (Noretta Koertge, Editor, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 172-190, 2006).

I suggest that anyone aware of the issues I raise in that essay might have serious concerns about certain developments at the University of Toronto. Perhaps the most serious of these is that, despite a mania for planning in recent years, there has been little attempt by Simcoe Hall to examine the corrosive effects of mixing scholarship with advocacy in certain disciplines, and the associated implications for censorship on contentious topics such as the “Nature/Nurture” controversy.

The censorship problem is nicely characterized by a US journalist. Cited by the free speech advocate Nat Hentoff in his “Free Speech for Me but Not For Thee” (cited in essay), this journalist commented on the pervasive tendency to censor in the name of avoiding offense by observing: “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

This quip is very perceptive. The urge to censor is just as strong today as it was in the past. Only the topics that are considered taboo have changed.