Free Speech on Campus

By Grace Karram Stephenson

Across North America free speech controversies have led to protests, violence and academic censure at universities.  Social media has become the new staging ground for debates, creating insurmountable distance between the central players and their followers.  At the centre of each dispute is most often two groups – the first feels their safety on campus is threatened by the other’s rhetoric and the second feels their free speech is censored by the other’s vulnerability.  Yet across institutions it has largely been unpredictably which campus stakeholders will be part of the first or second group.  Students, professors and administrators have all, in different contexts, been the threatened or the censored.

Within Canada, Ontario’s universities have been sites for some of the most heated debates over free speech on campus.  The hoopla surrounding Jordan Peterson and Lindsay Sheppard have had serious ramifications for those in Toronto and Waterloo as protests and counter-protests force the campus community to align themselves in hazy categories of left and right.

On April 5, 2018, in an attempt to clarify these issues and chart a path for further dialogue, Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath was invited to give the 2018 Worldviews Lecture on Media and Higher Education at the University of Toronto. Her talk, entitled Free Speech on Campus: Challenges for minority rights and democratic values, argued that both free speech and inclusivity are core values of the university.


Ben-Porath maintains that the principle of free speech, in its widest, unbridled form, is still central to the academic environment and that even the controversial or offensive voices must still be allowed to present their argument.  However, she suggests the following condition:

it is important in my view to hold many of these debates within their disciplinary domains.  So to the extent to which the experts in the field are willing and able to provide knowledgeable responses to claims made by controversial speakers, this is the appropriate way to go.

Ben-Porath puts her faith in the academic structures that govern debate within a field, trusting that if an offensive argument is made, there will be ready experts available to refute it through discussion or written dialogue.  At the same time, Ben-Porath delineated between the academic risks we encounter in our fields, as we are critically refined by processes like peer review, and the dignitary risks that limit particular groups from full participation on campus because of the a “chilly climate.”

Ben-Porath recognizes the unequal burden placed on historically underrepresented groups for whom these debates are not theoretical but an active fight to retain their position in the university.  At the same time she cautioned against entrenching policies of censorship, anticipating that if a change of administration occurs, the same policies can be used to censor those who are originally threatened.

Following Ben-Porath’s lecture, four panelists responded to her talk from different angles, moderated by the Globe and Mail’s higher education reporter Simona Chiose.  Jasmine Zine, professor of Sociology and the Muslim Studies option at Wilfrid Laurier University built on the latter caveat by outlining the very real danger the alt-right is causing for Muslim scholars on campus.  The death threats and doxing she and her colleagues have experienced has raised questions about whether these debates can meet Ben-Porath’s ideal of staying neatly in their disciplinary bounds.


The second panelist, Paul Axelrod, professor Emeritus from York University’s education faculty, gave a historic overview of the tensions in the university as previously underrepresented groups entered the university and encountered those “chilly climates.”

The final two panelists were journalists who have reported on free speech issues in education.  Columnist Shree Paradkar advocated for maintaining broad notions of the free speech but pointed to the limits that have been placed on militant Muslims.  She questioned why alt-right are not subject to the same boundaries, stating that the, “principles of free speech and open expression are far too important to be hijacked by bigotry.”

The last response came from Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed.  Scott challenged several myths that have emerged in the free speech debates.  He illustrated how free speech is very much alive on campus, but pointed to the money trail that funds alt-right speakers from outside the university to wage their culture wars.  He questioned how flat the playing field is within a university if one group is receiving large amounts of funding to push their agenda.

Despite the ideals espoused by Ben-Porath at the 2018 Worldviews lecture, it is clear that the controversies around free speech have escaped any disciplinary boundaries and are taking place via social media or externally funded events.  New strategies are needed to support professors and students, fostering responsive dialogue that can begin to heal the divisions that scar our campuses.

The 2018 Worldviews Lecture and panel discussion can be watched online.


One comment

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