Is Freedom Of Speech Disappearing On Campus?

September 2009

"Freedom of speech encompasses not only your right to express, but also my right to hear: a university campus is not a nursery, and students should not be coddled as though it were."

Are Canadian universities and students losing their tolerance for free speech?

It's a question that comes to mind these days, after a variety of restrictions have been enforced against student groups' activities on campuses across the country.

Some student groups have been denied university club status or have faced limits on how they can argue their opinions. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has taken to task both students' unions and university administrations for what it sees as censorship bowing to political correctness.

Often, these student groups want to take an unpopular stand in very public places on campus. Some highly publicized cases involve anti-abortion student groups prohibited from displaying posters of aborted fetuses in prominent places on campus and refused “student club status” by student unions.

University Affairs decided to host an e-mail debate on the topic of academic freedom, from the viewpoint of students. We asked Abby Deshman, a CCLA staff member, to argue in favour of free speech, especially as it concerns the rights of anti-abortion student groups. Her debating opponent is Carolyn Cody, internal coordinator of the University of British Columbia Okanagan Students' Union, which successfully defended its right to deny club status to an anti-abortion student group in the B.C. Supreme Court this past winter. The opening volley begins with Ms. Deshman.

Abby Deshman:

While the Canadian Civil Liberties Association always has been a strongly pro-choice organization, we have growing concerns regarding the actions various students' unions have taken against anti-abortion groups on campuses. The rationale some student leaders have offered for refusing to accord official club status to student anti-abortion groups has led CCLA to conclude that many students may not fully appreciate the vital role freedom of expression plays on university campuses. These concerns have not been limited to student leadership; CCLA recently strongly criticized several university administrations for banning controversial student materials reproduced in connection with Israel Apartheid Week.

Some of the central tenets of a university education are critical thinking, intense debate and the adventurous search for truth. Faculty and students must be free to ask challenging questions and to express provocative and even at times offensive opinions without fear of official sanction or censorship. If university campuses become places where highly controversial subjects cannot be vigorously debated and challenged through words, images and non-violent actions, then where in society can we expect freedom of expression to prevail?

That many students may find the material distributed by some anti-abortion groups disturbing, offensive or misleading likely provides valid grounds to challenge these groups. The proper response, however, is argument – not censorship. To quote Noam Chomsky, “if we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all.”

Carolyn Cody:

This debate is about the right of students' unions to govern printed materials that can be posted on their campuses. When it comes to student groups that fall under the banner of the students' union, then the students' union has absolute say over what can and cannot be said by those student groups. How this responsibility is decided upon is of the utmost importance.

No one, I suspect, is seriously suggesting that there should be no restrictions on on-campus posting – for example, that pornographic materials should be allowed to be posted in the campus daycare. If you agree, then you agree in principle that there should be a process to regulate what should be posted, and where.

On the UBC Okanagan Campus, a group wanted a venue to display the Genocide Awareness Project. The UBC Students' Union Okanagan provided a classroom in which they could display the posters and the film. This is still public space, but people could be warned that these are graphic images which they could reasonably expect not to see on campus.

It is entirely reasonable of a students' union, or any other society with closed membership, to place restrictions on the use of its resources, as long as judgments are applied fairly.

There is nothing any students' union can do to prevent people from organizing on campus, calling themselves whatever they wish and representing any political position they choose. All the students' union can do is set a consistent, democratic standard for accessing its resources – whether it be money, bulletin boards, space or any other form of support.

Ms. Deshman:

Your first statement, that students' unions have an absolute say over what can and cannot be said by those student groups they recognize, sends shivers down my civil liberties spine. Let's be clear, however, about what we are debating. I may criticize the way students' unions have exercised their discretion. This does not mean that I would argue that this discretion does not exist, or that it should be removed. I personally think there is very significant value in student self-governance.

We should also be clear about what is at stake when students' unions exercise this discretion. At many Canadian universities, students' unions have the exclusive authority to recognize official student groups. That frequently affects groups' ability to book free rooms across campus, post notices on university boards and advertise their existence through university websites and club fair days.

This is not, then, about accessing students' union funding. It is about the ability of these students to function as a typical campus group within the larger university environment.

Within this context, what's truly of concern is the criteria many students' unions are using to exercise this discretion. Many would seem to find it acceptable to deny ratification to a student group because they disagree with the group's message. In principle, I have no problem with students' unions, or university administrations, disciplining student groups that knowingly contravene clear, objective, fair policies that recognize the importance of freedom of speech. I do have concerns when the underlying policies and criteria governing acceptable behaviour are unclear or overly subjective, or when they allow student groups to be denied status simply because those in power, or the majority of students, find the content of the groups' speech objectionable.

Ms. Cody:

If the membership of a student society decides not to support a specific group, it is within its rights to do so. A problem arises when people conflate our decision to withhold support for a given cause with an attack on their free speech.

Freedom of speech has a very narrow definition: that someone cannot be persecuted by the government or other institutions for expressing his or her opinions. Free speech does not include the right to display disturbing images without any warning. That is what many anti-choice groups on campuses are doing; under the guise of “freedom of speech,” they are publicly posting images of holocaust victims and other examples of genocide next to aborted fetuses. The University of Calgary requested that the anti-choice group turn their signs and images inward, to protect the general public from accidentally viewing the graphic images. The group was allowed to voice their opinions and engage the public in debate.

A violation of free speech occurs when someone is denied something to which they would normally be entitled because of their opinions. In this context, it could be penalties from the university, or it could be a students' union denying someone the baseline of services, to which all members are entitled, because that individual criticized the students' union.

When extra privileges are denied, that is not a free-speech violation. We need to distinguish between real violations of free speech and cases where individuals are suffering from a false sense of entitlement.

Ms. Deshman:

You state it would violate freedom of speech if the university levied penalties – academic or otherwise – on someone because of their opinions. Indeed, I hope students' unions would strongly criticize an administration that refused student group ratification, or curtailed posting or room booking abilities, solely because the administration disagreed with the group's message. If a students' union has been delegated this authority, however, this power must be accompanied by similar scrutiny.

With regard to graphic images, not all anti-abortion groups should be penalized because some may have violated campus rules. In any event, the principle of free speech would require allowing those groups some reasonable opportunity to expose campus members to their material. It is difficult to assess from a distance whether the restrictions imposed in individual cases strike a reasonable balance. As others have noted, however, such restrictions must not turn freedom of speech into freedom of soliloquy. Freedom of speech encompasses not only your right to express but also my right to hear: a university campus is not a nursery, and students should not be coddled as though it were.

Ms. Cody:

Neither side in this debate has proposed that students' unions or universities should prevent individuals from using their own resources to promote their own opinions, and yet that is the point to which we keep returning.

Where I part company with these sorts of quasi-libertarian arguments is when they suggest that the students' union has a responsibility to promote points of view with which its members disagree. If it's the case that any membership-based organization has the responsibility to dedicate resources to every opinion of every member, then the whole system descends into absurdity pretty quickly.

Ms. Deshman:

To sum up, this debate requires the resolution of a key question – students' unions' role on university campuses. Students' unions often act both as representatives of student interests and as regulators through which students access university-wide resources. Acting as the former, it would be improper – indeed impossible – to require active support for every student cause. Acting as the latter, however, they must have an overarching mandate to protect freedom of speech. The issue is not, and cannot be, whether we agree with their cause. Again, if we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise, we do not believe in it at all.

Ms. Cody:

There is a process in place that determines who can have access to the resources regulated by the students' union. If people want to flagrantly violate these regulations and still act within our system and have access to our resources, we will not accommodate them. Any discussion of the right to free speech must include our right to self-determination; otherwise it is only a discussion of the rights of a few carefully selected stakeholders.