The Urge To Censor: Comment On Cody/Deshman Debate

September 2009

In view of the BC Supreme Court's ruling on the UBC Okanagan Student Union's decision to deny club status to an anti-abortion group, I do not comment on this particular case. Nevertheless, as does the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's Abby Deshman, I find the attitudes espoused by the Okanagan Student Union's Carolyn Cody to be deeply disturbing. In "Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee" Nat Hentoff, citing examples of suppression of debate in US universities, quotes an editor of a prominent US newspaper as saying that the strongest human instinct is the urge to censor, with sex a weak second.

Various actions by Canadian university administrations and student unions provide text-book examples of this dictum, with ideology or concern over giving offense overriding legitimate academic debate.

As an example, somebody in our bloated equity bureaucracy ordered the removal from our campus posters depicting the notorious Danish Cartoons. This individual sent examples to the Toronto Police, apparently deeming them hate literature. But the police – not known for their advocacy of free speech – did not. Given that many scholars have raised the need for a vigorous debate on the relationship between Islam and modernity, it is shameful that a university would not allow these posters to help prompt that debate. The presence of this trend on Canadian campuses is the principal reason why I am a member of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship; this organization seems to me to be the only one in Canada advocating unequivocally the core values essential for the effective functioning of universities, whose primary mission should be the search for truth through the conflict of ideas

Among other things, Ms. Cody apparently thinks that adult persons should be protected from viewing images that her particular group finds disturbing. A case can be made that the public should be protected from viewing disturbing images in certain contexts; for example, one might ban provocative advertising on billboards directed towards motorways on the grounds that it inappropriately distracts drivers, but in this case, what is the rationale?

In this respect, given that humans constantly elevate the customary into the axiomatic, provocative images can be an essential tool in stimulating much needed debate. In the case of abortion, involving – among other concerns – a difficult balance between the competing rights of the mother and the developing fetus, I suggest that most Canadians reject the extremes of both advocates' camps, and are uncomfortable with the absence of any framework regulating conditions under which abortion may be permitted. Thus, as crude as the activists' equating untrammeled abortion rights to genocide may seem to the majority of thoughtful individuals, I suggest that the activists' tactics are within the norm of spirited debate. Surely university campuses should be places where such hard-hitting debate is encouraged or even provoked?

Particularly distressing is Ms. Cody's claim that her students' union has an "absolute say over what can and cannot be said by" student groups operating under its aegis. Is not this totalitarian assertion a quintessential example of Hentoff's quote? Given that students' unions are supported by compulsorily extracted fees, surely her union has to balance any legitimate concern over content against its obligations to students, provided of course that they meet basic operational criteria such as payment of student fees and minimum group size?