The Difficult Conversations We Need to Have About Free Speech

By Ben Crase

This past week, CIHE hosted Ryerson Univeristy’s distinguished visiting professor Dr. James Turk, who recently established the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson, a timely initiative as universities seem to be increasingly awash in various free speech issues. As many of those issues have gained greater traction with the public, the resulting discussion has become highly polarized and counterproductive as a result.

In this landscape, Turk aims to articulate both a strong position in favour of free speech, but also a nuanced position that is responsive to the nature and range of concerns regarding free expression seen on campuses. Dr. Turk’s principled defence of his views and willingness to engage with dissenting perspectives in the seminar contributed to a lively discussion of current controversies around freedom of expression and academic freedom.

Framing the Argument

In advocating his position, Turk summarizes his views concisely in five key points.

First, we have to recognize that words can harm and that those raising objections to speech are never without reason, at least in their own minds. The history of censorship is replete with justifications, whether it be from those who put Socrates to death for corrupting the youth of Athens, or those who told Galileo he would be tortured is he did not recant heliocentrism.

Second, censorship also causes harm, which is why the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes freedom of expression as one of its four fundamental freedoms. Freedom of expression plays a vital role allowing us to formulate our views and understanding of the world. Every time you suppress speech, you interfere with a person’s ability to learn and develop their own position on issues. Even more critical to the university, it is essential for the search of knowledge and truth as we must always challenge perceived orthodoxy to further our understanding of the world.

Third, freedom of expression must be recognized as foundational to our democracy. While we may think democracy is about elections or the rule of law, it’s really about an ongoing conversation regarding what is legitimate and what is not. As a result, Canadian law and jurisprudence sets a very high bar as to what speech can be suppressed to allow all voices to be heard.

Fourth, and most critically, is acknowledging that expression may be subject to greater limits when it occurs in particular institutional contexts. Unfortunately, discussions of free speech often go awry when the university is talked about in monolithic terms. Instead, we should distinguish between three types of spaces that exist on campuses:

  • On the general public spaces of the campus, the same rules governing freedom of expression that have very few limits in society should apply.
  • The second setting is the classroom, where faculty have academic freedom to use their best professional judgement in teaching, research and to be critical of anything that goes on in a university.
  • The last category are private spaces, such as residences and clubs, where you have a right to be protected and associate with likeminded individuals – a necessary arena to prepare students to someday enter the public discourse.

Lastly, if we have very few limits, how do we deal with speech that certain groups find harmful? The way to deal with that is not through suppression and censorship. Suppressing ideas simply doesn’t work, as evidenced by the failed efforts of authoritharian regimes throughout history to eliminate modes of thinking and discourse. If you try to suppress them, you end up giving the authorities the ability to act arbitrarily. The ultimate victims of this arbitrariness inevitably end up being those who they were purportedly helping in the first place.

Challenges and Debates

Although one might quibble around the edges of these claims, for most, they are relatively uncontroversial and self-evidently articulate the core values that underpin universities and liberal democracies. If that’s the case, why do we seem to be wrapped up in an ever-increasing number of episodes where the existential identity of institutions is called into question? Why do institutions struggle with these adversities even when universities’ statement of purpose (see U of T’s) strongly defend freedom of expression? Is a lack of university leadership and administrative bungling solely to blame?

seminar

Unaddressed in Turk’s remarks was the reality that for some in the academy, the assumptions he holds are deeply mistrusted, as evidenced in the seminar’s discussion period. One line of reasoning views free speech as a tool of oppression that reproduces liberal white supremacist logic. If speech alone is understood as a violent act; if the lived experience of others cannot be challenged; and if disagreement is conflated with denying one’s existence, the terrain Turk presumes we all share is far shakier than it first appears. Fortunately for those in attendance, the discord between these opposing viewpoints was laid bare in the Q and A.

For some, the languages and discourses of liberal democracy are insufficient and we must be willing to recognize that the ideal of liberal democracy “might not be a possibility at all to get us to where we need to get.” When challenged on our collective unwillingness to see how universities “instantiate white power,” Turk affirmed that it is not the powerful who need constitutional guarantees, but rather marginalized people that need protections. He questions whether it is possible to adjudicate between multiple groups’ claims of experiencing harm, and their attendant implications for regulating speech. Turk affirmed that he was unabashed about defending a theoretical notion of liberal democracy, and that the only way to ensure that individuals can continue to organize for change is by protected free speech.

The conversation concluded by focusing on the now infamous Lindsay Shepherd incident at Wilfred Laurier University. Discussing the polarized viewpoints on the case, Turk emphatically argued: “if hearing a debate of Jordan Peterson and critics of Jordan Peterson can define a university classroom as unsafe, then universities are done.”

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