Universities Fail To Stand Up For Free

January 2012

One of the biggest threats to free speech in Canada comes from universities that condone illegal activities on the part of people who obstruct, interrupt and effectively shut down the events and speeches of people they disagree with.

University of B.C. president Stephen Toope has lamented that “in Canada, we have seen many examples of students trying to shut down speakers with whom they disagree.”

Toope has asserted that, “the role of the university is to encourage tough questioning, and clear expressions of disagreement, but not the silencing of alternative views. Universities are sites for the contestation of values, not places where everyone has to agree. That means that speakers we don’t like, or even respect, should be allowed to put forward their views . . . (which can) then be challenged and argued over.”

Section 430 of the Criminal Code makes it an offence to “obstruct, interrupt or interfere with any person in the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property.”

But universities in Ottawa, Montreal, Waterloo, Calgary and elsewhere have turned a blind eye to people physically obstructing and disrupting speech they disagree with. Ann Coulter, the controversial American pundit and author, was scheduled to speak at the University of Ottawa in March 2010 as part of her tour of Canadian universities, sponsored by the International Free Press Society. Before arriving, Coulter received a threatening letter from University of Ottawa academic vice-president Francois Houle, warning her: “Weigh your words” or risk criminal or civil legal consequences.

Coulter’s speech ended up being cancelled due to the university failing to provide adequate security in the face of violence-threatening protesters.

In November 2010, Christie Blatchford was to speak at the University of Waterloo about her book Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us. Blatchford criticized Ontario’s McGuinty government for failing to treat all citizens equally.

Three students sat on the stage, loudly chanting things like “no free speech for Nazi apologizers!” and refused to leave. One of these disrupting obstructionists explained, “We don’t want people who are really, really racist teaching . . . (and) we don’t want that person to have a public forum because it makes it dangerous for others in the public forum. Our goal was to not let her speak. We accomplished that.”

Michael Strickland, the University of Waterloo’s assistant director of media relations, stated, “We made a determination that since she wasn’t going to get a word in, in any sort of respectful fashion, there would be no point in bringing her out and havingher subjected to that.”

Apparently, arresting and removing the obstructionists was not on the university’s radar screen.

At McGill University in 2009, the speaker giving a controversial talk called Echoes of the Holocaust, organized by the campus Choose Life club, was shouted down by protesters. Campus security did not remove the protesters, who effectively censored the event by shutting it down, much like the protesters who shut down the Blatchford and Coulter events. Some pro-choice attendees approached the speaker afterward to express their regret at not being able to hear his arguments.

At the University of Calgary, pro-life students have set up a controversial display on campus 12 times since 2006, for two consecutive days each time. In the fall of 2007, campus security stood by and watched while obstructionists blocked and disrupted the display, and prevented the pro-life students from carrying on dialogue with other students. Campus security did not ask the obstructionists to cease their conduct. Instead, after this incident, the university started demanding that the pro-life students turn their signs inward. When the students refused to comply with this demand, the university found them guilty of non-academic misconduct, a verdict the students are now seeking to overturn in court.

The universities’ failure to uphold the rule of law sends a very clear message in support of mob rule: If you disagree with someone, then silence that person and prevent that person from expressing her or his views. Whether universities themselves restrict controversial or politically incorrect speech, or whether they fail to uphold the rule of law on campus, in both cases, the end result is censorship.