Queen's University Convocation Address, 3 June, 1999EDUCATING FOR FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Convocation Address to Education students.
Chancellor Lougheed, Principal Leggett, Rector Kealy, faculty, graduands and honoured guests:
I am grateful for the honour you do me today, and pleased to say a few words to the graduands.
Many of you will be teaching the young people who will become the citizens of tomorrow. For that reason I want to stress to you today the importance of a simple ideal that is fundamental to intellectual development, to education in its broadest sense—freedom of speech. The special case of academic freedom is of course an absolute requirement if a university is to do its job of advancing knowledge. But I would like to suggest that the training for informed open discussion and debate must begin much earlier, even in elementary school. Yet it seems that the concept of freedom to dissent, to differ from prevailing doctrine or majority opinion, is not adequately promoted even in High School years. So it is perhaps not surprising that many university communities fail to realize its importance. A manifestation of this sad lack in education is that punishment for expressing unpopular ideas has become commonplace in our culture.
As president of a society that attempts to act as a watchdog for academic freedom in this country, I could give several unpleasant examples of professors charged with harassment or of promoting a poisoned environment, simply because they were honestly teaching the facts and ideas of their discipline. But I’d like to draw some examples closer to your own experience.
In the course of your training in Education, I am guessing you have been taught, among other things, the importance of diversity; and, of the necessity to make accommodations for what are called “learning disabilities”. But I wonder if in your classes you ever encountered alternative views such as: that neither scholarly merit nor diversity in productive ideas will be achieved by quotas based on differing skin colour or sex; or, that many intelligent professionals question the validity of accommodation for learning disorders, particularly in a university context. Just as, though we would ideally want blind persons to achieve their full potential we would not expect them to qualify as aeroplane pilots; so it has been argued that certain intellectual characteristics are essential to success in many fields of study. And that if we circumvent these ability prerequisites by making inappropriate accommodations, we may actually be failing in our responsibility as teachers, and as monitors of standards for the world outside the classroom.
I don’t know if any of you, in the course of your years here, has raised a question that challenged a mainstream opinion. In many Canadian universities, you would be lucky if you were just shouted down. If you were unlucky, you might also be labelled as sexist, racist or homophobic. The latest tool in the arsenal of the enemies of free speech is to label anyone who expresses an opinion they dislike, as a promoter of hate. Such charges have been made very much easier by the widespread institution of speech codes, by the establishment of Human Rights tribunals that have carried the interpretation of “discrimination” and “harassment” to ludicrous extremes, and by ambiguous so-called anti-hate legislation that intimidates anyone who would engage in discussion of controversial ideas.
I’d like to suggest, in contrast, that the single most valuable right we have, the one most worth protecting in a free society, is the right to state an opinion without fear of reprisal. Unless we have that right, we simply cannot defend other rights. Totalitarian regimes know this very well, since freedom of expression is often the first activity they curtail. We have not only a right, but also a duty to discuss honestly how to govern ourselves as a society, what rules to live by, and how best to achieve the ideal of maximizing individual opportunity. That means allowing the expression of ideas with which we strongly disagree or that may even be repugnant to us. But if we allow freedom of expression only for ideas with which we agree, we do not have freedom of speech at all.
History shows that we can’t always tell which of the current ideas will in the long run be good ones. Some of the widely accepted facts of today were despised and ridiculed when they were first proposed. For example, the suggestion that the earth is not the centre of the universe, but that it moves around the sun, was so offensive to the Catholic church in Galileo’s time that, as you know, he was brought before the inquisition for defending it. No doubt there were other ideas in the past, which we now consider bad ones; but if so it was because in the course of extensive analysis and discussion, they were found by rational people to be untenable; not because an institutional tribunal declared them to be immoral.
So we should not fear the expression and discussion of either mainstream or alternative points of view. What we should fear above all else is punishment merely for the expression of an opinion.
I hope you will understand why I have raised this matter for you to consider today. You are the people who are going to help mould the next generation. You are in the strongest position to foster democratic ideals, including the freedom to dissent. These are ideals that cannot be taught too early; in fact they seem to need reinforcing repeatedly throughout our lives. Who will guard the concept of free speech in a democratic society, if not you?