Free Speech: A Crucial Part Of A University’s Purpose

January 2018

On Sept. 8, Annette Trimbee, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, released a statement posted on the U of W’s website under the heading “Statement on Diversity.” This aims to be an affirmation of the university’s “deep commitment to valuing and protecting the diversity of people who form our campus community.”

The impetus for this letter is said to be “recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere, including disturbing graffiti in Winnipeg neighbourhoods,” that “illustrate that collectively, we must remain vigilant when confronted with racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and discrimination of any kind.”

This seems uncontroversial as a simple articulation of the university’s commitment to inclusivity and fairness. However, in my view, Trimbee stumbles into problematic territory as she continues her remarks: “We must guard against groups that seek to use freedom of speech on campuses as a defence to target people and communities because of race, religion, disability, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and immigrant status.”

How are we to understand this extremely general claim? Is there a specific problem at the U of W the president is addressing? Can Trimbee point to one example of “groups seeking to use freedom of speech on campus” to target the broadly named groups? Are there any reports of groups who have attempted to use the cover of free speech to target the long list of people who may potentially be targeted (which seems to include virtually all of the population)? Further, what does the broad term “target” mean? Does “target” mean to question the beliefs, traditions, and norms of particular “races,” “religions” or “nationalities”?

On a university campus, there is and should be ongoing critique and debate about all types of ideas, social movements, cultural, artistic and scientific issues. Who is to determine the legitimate parameters of discussion and criticism? Is any or all criticism, for example, of established religions or Canada’s immigration policy to be off-limits? Is the presentation of scientific research on the origins of and character of differences between the sexes, or homosexuality and transgenderism, to be allowed? Does criticism of the policies of the government of the Buddhist-majority country of Myanmar as regards its Muslim population constitute targeting a nationality? Indeed, as is commonplace in the study of politics, is the critique of nationalism itself acceptable? Is Darwin’s theory of evolution, which deeply offends many religions, to be taboo?

Short of any specifics and direct examples, Trimbee’s statement, in my view, is simply an instance of moral grandstanding. It conflates events in the United States and the appearance of some hateful graffiti in Winnipeg as some sort of imminent danger to the university community.

As a member of the faculty at the U of W, what I find most unsettling about the remarks is the blithe treatment of the notion of freedom of speech. The one mention of freedom of speech is that it may operate as a potential cover for bad speech. Academic freedom is the prime principle of any university, as it is the basis on which we conduct our work. It allows for free, open and unimpeded intellectual inquiry. It should be stressed that it is diversity of thought as well as a diversity of identities to which we should aspire.

As a professor who studies and teaches political theory, I am constantly reminded of how precious the principle of freedom of thought and a diversity of views is. Human history is littered with examples of those who have fallen afoul of myriad self-appointed arbiters of good, true and correct ideas: popes, priests, imams, rabbis, mobs, star chambers, town councils and, yes, university administrators who take it upon themselves to dictate the terms and conditions of good speech and to punish those who dare disagree.

It must also be said that anyone who has thought about this issue seriously recognizes that freedom of speech cannot be an absolute and unquestioned principle. There will always be limits to it. Our right to pursue ideas freely must certainly be accompanied by a sense of responsibility and seriousness as to the potential consequences of speech. But those limits must be carefully considered and drawn.

The statement fails to acknowledge the complexity of the issue under discussion. In its rush to assert the principle of diversity, it fails to mention that open inquiry that depends upon free speech is, and must continue to be, the bedrock of university life.

It also sidesteps the problem that the principle of diversity is sometimes problematic. The aspirations of different groups are not always in harmony. National groups, ethnic groups and religious groups, to name but a few, are often in conflict. A cursory glance at the daily news can tell us this. Whose aspirations and rights are to take precedence in discussions over those of others?

Unimpeded and open debate is the best way to sort out these issues. General directives from on high should not be a substitute for the real work of disputation and discussion of these complicated questions. It is commendable that the university is committed to diversity, but such a commitment is incomplete without an equally powerful commitment to the principle of free speech.