Free Speech: Pushing The Limits Of Free Speech

April 2006

After being elected Opinions Editor of the Dalhousie Gazette for the 2005-6 academic year, I was looking forward to producing a weekly forum for open discussion of a wide range of topics that would be of particular interest to university students. There were a few subjects I was particularly interested in writing articles about, including the creation vs. evolution debate, religion and spirituality, and freedom of speech. While an article I wrote about creation vs. evolution received only one angry letter from a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, and an article about religion and spirituality received no attention at all, my two articles about freedom of speech caused a minor uproar.While I originally intended to write one article discussing the importance of expressing one’s opinions freely and without fear of reprisal, I realized I had so much to say about the subject that I wrote two articles, both of which were published in the Dalhousie Gazette in October 2005.

The headlines for the articles were “Freedom of speech not to everyone’s taste” and “Academic freedom under attack.” An excerpt from the first article:

“Freedom of speech [...] is integral in any society because it allows for the free exchange of ideas, open discussion, and ultimately discoveries and progress. “Despite its unarguable importance, freedom of speech is slowly eroding in our society, and will likely continue to do so unless we do something about it.

“Examples of stifled freedom of speech abound, even here at Dalhousie. When I stopped at an awareness booth for the Take Back the Night march in the SUB [Student Union Building] a couple weeks ago, I saw that the young women running the booth had clipped a recent Streeter from the Gazette and had circled a response to the question, “What is your frosh name?” This particular frosh said her name was “Sensor,” meaning that girls at Shirreff Hall have legs that are like automatic doors – when something moves, they open.

‘“Freedom of the press, or incitement to rape?’ the women at the Take Back the Night booth had scrawled across the newspaper clipping.

“I told them I thought this was clearly freedom of the press, but they were having none of it. I quickly made my exit.

“Later, I thought of a scene from the television show Roseanne. Roseanne’s sister Jackie is sitting at the kitchen table reading a newspaper when she says to Roseanne, ‘A woman has been charged with stabbing her husband 57 times!’

‘“I admire her restraint,’ Roseanne responds.

“Is this considered incitement to murder? Maybe Roseanne should be arrested as a man-hater and barred from appearing on television ever again! If the women at Take Back the Night had their way, I suspect this might come true.”

I thought that this incident perfectly illustrated the impossibility of preventing offense through censorship because, according to Dr. Andrew Irvine, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, 'almost any comment in any context might be viewed by someone to be offensive.’

I did not intend for this article to be offensive, but the Gazette received angry responses from several students at Dalhousie, especially from members of the Women’s Center. Because the Center organizes the “Take Back the Night” march each year, they felt I was personally attacking their organization and attempting to defame them. The Gazette received several unprintable emails from the director of the Center, who was livid. She threatened to take her case to the Board of Directors in an attempt to initiate legal action against the newspaper, on the grounds of libel.

To this day, I see nothing libelous in this article, never mind the fact that I never once refer to the Women’s Center. The entire text of the article remains posted on the Women’s Center’s website.

An excerpt from the second article I wrote: “While the freedom to express thoughts that are potentially offensive is an important aspect of freedom of speech, the freedom to express controversial ideas in academia is just as important – and just as vilified in some cases.

“At the convocation ceremony at Simon Fraser University last May, Dr. Doreen Kimura delivered a speech praising the importance of freedom of speech among academics.

“Kimura cited several examples of threatened freedom, such as a York University professor who had “observers” attend his lecture on the evolution of behavioural differences between men and women. These observers were ‘members of special interest tribunals,’ who were clearly determined to ensure that the lecturer made no comments that could be construed as sexist.

“Dr. Kimura also referred to a watchdog committee set up at the University of Toronto ‘to ensure that no reference is made in textbooks that could be construed as unfavourable to any minority, no matter how factual or well established such references are.’

“Two particular instances of ‘factual and well established’ ideas receiving widespread criticism spring to my mind.

“The first is an idea that I discussed in a previous issue: namely, the controversy regarding evolution and intelligent design. The disgust and hostility many people have toward the evolutionary theory is comparable to how the public responded to other scientific ideas when they were first introduced.

“For instance, the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for suggesting that the earth moves around the sun, and Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift was initially rejected and even ridiculed within the scientific community almost a century ago.

“More recently, Harvard University president Larry Summers received a backlash of criticism upon his suggestion that the reason fewer women than men participate in science is because of innate differences between the sexes.

“In an article in the Vancouver Sun last year, Kimura wrote, ‘The responses to Summers indicate once again how little respect many in academia really have for the principles of academic freedom and rational discussion. Even had he been mistaken, the reaction should have been more moderate, but as it happens, he was not.’

“Kimura explained in her article that ‘men are, on average, better on such spatial tasks and on mathematical reasoning than are women. Women, in contrast are better, on average, on tasks requiring verbal memory.’

“Since spatial and mathematical ability are essential in fields such as physics and engineering, this seems to account for the disparity between men’s and women’s participation in these subjects.”

Respondents to this article accused me of being sexist, among other things, as this letter from a journalism student at the University of King’s College shows:

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading in Sarah Vanderwolf’s opinion piece on freedom of speech last week [...] Universities are supposed to be centers of intellectual exploration. If a professor or student is so irresponsible as to use statistics to describe the nature of an entire group of people, then I fully support and will engage in any criticism against them.

“Larry Summers was criticised for assuming that just because not enough women were in the sciences, they weren’t good at it [...] [he] took an observation and created an assumption about that group of people. This is faulty logic, and should not be tolerated – especially at a university.”

I found the arguments in this letter ridiculous.

Admitting that there are demonstrable differences between people of different races and genders is not racism or sexism. But in our politically correct world, free speech is too often defined as “not the right to say anything, but instead to express your opinion so long as it does not offend or harm individuals based on race, sexual orientation, gender, etc” as another respondent wrote to us.

While most of my colleagues at the Gazette were relatively supportive of the difficult situation, a fellow editor told me that my articles were “unethical,” “unprofessional,” and “reckless”; he twice demanded that I apologize (which I did not), and he told me in an email that “I personally think you should quit,” (which I also did not).

The recent global crisis regarding the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad, and the smaller-scale controversy here in Halifax regarding Professor Peter March, are another reminder of the controversial, yet integral role free speech has in our society.

I hope that my experiences regarding free speech, and the current global crisis, will not scare us from away from free expression, but will rather solidify our determination to maintain the right to speak freely.