Free Speech Isn’t at Risk on University Campuses
Still, the concerns of free speech advocates aren’t baseless
The slow death of nuance can be exemplified by the last few years of controversy surrounding free speech on campus.
We must first define what “free speech” even is, and it’s a little different in Canada and the United States than it is in other parts of the world. Generally speaking, “free speech” means that the government cannot silence you. There are some minor restrictions of course, such as uttering threats or libel, but you can pretty much say whatever you want.
“Free speech” doesn’t mean that you can say something racist without the possibility of someone reacting to you, or your employer firing you. While you have the freedom to speak what’s on your mind, protesters have the freedom of showing up to your speech and disagreeing with you, so long as order is maintained.
Now, universities aren’t the government. But most Canadian universities are government-supported, and given the weight they carry in our society, it’s fair to scrutinize their behaviour, especially as cauldrons of ideas.
In a conversation about nuance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to differentiate between speech being critical, and speech being hateful or malicious. I would hope that saying, “I disagree with X religious group on Y moral issue,” is critical, but not a racist or prejudicial statement, while saying, “X religious group is inherently violent,” certainly is.
In my view, most issues can be placed on an “intolerant speech – overlap – free speech” venn diagram. In the free speech space would be Lindsay Shepherd, who found herself in hot water at Wilfrid Laurier University for showing a TVO debate between Jordan Peterson and several academics who disagreed with him. After posting the secretly-recorded interview to the internet, Shepard received an apology from the university.
On the opposing side would be clear hate speech. In August of last year, Ryerson University cancelled a talk that was going to feature Jordan Peterson and Faith Goldy, citing safety concerns. This event was to take place shortly after the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, which Goldy covered with Rebel Media.
Goldy had worked with Rebel Media for some time and was eventually fired when she veered away from the thin line separating alt-right from white supremacy. This happened when she went on a Daily Stormer-produced podcast and didn’t sufficiently question their ideology. Her recitation of the “Fourteen Words” a few months later on a separate alt-right podcast certainly doesn’t help her case for not being a white supremacist.
However, even in this case, safety was cited as the reason to cancel the event, not racism.
Jordan Peterson might be in the grey zone of free speech, in that he is getting much more wrath directed at him than what is justified. While Peterson has many fans on the alt-right, it’s likely because of his critique of left-wing progressivism. He’s not alt-right himself.
The outrage against him has stemmed from comments he made in late 2016 on Bill C-16, which has since become law, in which he said he would not use “made up pronouns” such as “zhe” and “zher”. However, Peterson doesn’t seem to have an issue using binary pronouns with trans individuals, or the singular use of “they.”
Many legal scholars have criticised Peterson’s reading of the law, saying that no such compelled speech is taking place.
So what the heck does properly executed freedom of speech look like? I would say that if a KPU “Free Speech Club” were to form, its ideal demonstration would be putting on properly moderated debates. Anything more than that, as seen recently with UBC’s Free Speech Club, begins moving across the lines of the venn diagram into dangerous territory.