When it Comes to Free Expression, Any Limitation is a Crisis

April 2018

Doug Saunders wrote in The Globe and Mail that any talk about a crisis of free speech on campuses is overblown.

To make his case, he cites several studies that, taken together, present universities as places of open-minded, enlightened moderation.

“To mistake a colourful anecdote for a measurable trend is a basic scholarly error,” he reminds us.

It’s true that colourful anecdotes do not make a trend. But neither can a soothing column like Saunders’ soothe growing concerns that universities are abandoning their roles as guardians of open inquiry.

In a healthy intellectual environment, scholars give free expression paramount importance. We cannot understand reality in all its dimensions without free-ranging language, and neither can new generations of students mature out of superstition and prejudice without engaging others in difficult conversation. For these reasons, scholars understand that any attempt to limit expression is, by definition, a crisis.

If we give free expression the primacy it deserves, then a cool assessment of recent activity on university campuses indicates that universities do indeed face a crisis of confidence in inquiry, learning, and freedom of expression.

On 28 March, for example, a McMaster University student group cancelled a panel discussion titled “Tolerating Intolerance: A Discussion on Free Speech.” The panelists included Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, and Rick Mehta, an associate professor at Acadia University who is accused of being a racist transphobe.

The student anti-poverty group hosting the event shut it down before it happened, citing “that it would be difficult to convene the civil, balanced discourse we were hoping to have on this important issue.” In other words, they worried that protestors might become violent.

If only this was but one colourful anecdote.

Over the last year, protestors have worked hard to limit expression on Canadian campuses. To name a few: A group of students at Dalhousie University tried to have a student politician named Masuma Khan disciplined for public statements she made about “white fragility”; student unions at Ryerson University and University of Toronto outlawed students from organizing anti-abortion and men’s health groups; protestors de-platformed speakers at McMaster University, Laurier University, and other campuses; and last month, a protestor brought a garrotte to talk at Queen’s University given by U of T psychology professor and YouTube star Jordan Peterson.

Rather than let intelligent people judge for themselves whether an idea is malevolent or benign, hateful or blasé, protesters elevate themselves to arbiters of taste and decide for others what they may or may not see. And rather than challenge speech they deem offensive, censorious “activists” prefer to eliminate the speech. This ought to trouble open-minded democrats. History teaches what happens if the speech can’t be eliminated—you eliminate the speaker.

With a garrotte, perhaps.

More disturbing is how universities contribute to the polarization of our political sphere. Ryerson University, for example, revealed its selective politics last year when it cancelled a panel on free speech out of fear that offended protesters might become violent. Yet the school will host a conference in May on white privilege, a racially-charged topic that many people—not just Caucasians—find offensive.

Ryerson is right to stage conference, of course. Offense is no reason to limit conversation.

Contrary to Saunders’ survey of the literature, a growing body of research indicates a shrinking respect for the free and open exchange of ideas.

A recent Gallup survey of U.S. college students, for example, revealed a growing discomfort with free speech. In the words of Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt, “American college students today are, on average, more willing than students of recent generations to restrict speech and speakers on campus, in pursuit of other moral and political goals, particularly inclusion.”

And none of these colourful anecdotes speak to the ways university professors—many of them in part-time, precarious employment—censor their speech, thought, and scholarship out of fear of having the mob come down on them.

This is where the real crisis lurks and why we need to call any silencing of speech inside the university a crisis.

Most students are moderate, sensible people. It’s the hostile loud mouths—the people who can’t win an argument—and capitulating university administrators who we should all worry about.

Universities exist to pursue knowledge, not justice. (That’s the court’s domain.) In pursuing knowledge, universities must safeguard the freedom to scrutinize any idea and any speech. If free individuals—including undergraduates—cannot scrutinize an idea, then they cannot know for themselves what is true and what is false.

And that isn’t freedom.