SAFS letter to Queen's University Principal Woolf, and others

April 2013

April 11, 2013

Dr. Daniel Woolf

Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Queen’s University

Dr. Alan Harrison

Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic)

Queen’s University

Mr. Doug Johnson

President, Alma Mater Society

Queen’s University

Dear Principal Woolf, Provost Harrison, and President Johnson:

Re: Removal of Free Speech Wall

I am writing to you as president of the Society of Academic Freedom and Scholarship. We are a national organization of professors, students, and interested others who are dedicated to academic freedom, free speech, and reasoned debate on university campuses. You can learn more about our organization

We are concerned about the removal on two separate occasions by Queen’s University personnel of a Free Speech Wall erected by a student group called, Queen’s Students for Liberty. Their purpose was to invite Queen’s students to freely express their opinions on the wall, as part of a wider campaign to increase awareness of free speech rights in Canada.

The reason cited for removing the wall was that some of the opinions expressed were offensive and said to be racial slurs. We understand the university’s concern with becoming a forum for vulgarity and offensive comments that might denigrate or marginalize some students. But this concern must be weighed against other interests of the university. The purpose of the university is not to shield students from a sometimes unpleasant world. Or to send the message that adult students are not mature enough or capable enough to deal with offensive material by ignoring it or responding to it in other ways, but, instead, must be protected by authorities who act to silence the “offenders.”

A more important purpose of the university is to nourish an intellectual community to learn to respond to such claims with a skeptical view initially and then to gather evidence and use logic to come to their own conclusions on the issue. In short, it would have been much better to let students deal with offensive material by responding with their own comments on the wall, or by writing an op-ed or a letter to the editor in the student paper, or through discussions with other students than to remove the wall on their behalf and without negotiation.

There is a positive role too for the administration in this case. The university principal could have issued a statement explaining why he wasn’t ordering the removal of the wall. In that statement he could have reiterated the importance of reasoned debate and free expression to the mission of the university and also demonstrated faith in his student body to work through the unpalatable comments in a peaceful and productive way. He could have said that it is preferable to answer bad speech with better speech, rather than to censor. He could have led with a positive example of why we have universities instead of elevating authority and force over public debate.

In future, we hope that the Queen’s University administration will try to negotiate with students regulations involving the time, manner, and place of free speech walls rather than denying them a place on campus or removing them at the first untoward word or phrase that might appear.

In our view, Queen’s has been given an opportunity to help teach Canadians about the importance of free debate and the dangers of censorship. It has failed to do so this time. In the future, we hope Queen’s will do better.

Clive Seligman, President