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Freedom of expression on campus

by Nick Gertler September 11, 2018
Freedom of expression on campus

Why the JCCF’s findings on Concordia’s free speech policies are not credible

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has published their 2017 Campus Freedom Index. The index grades universities and student unions on their defence of free speech on campus—on paper and in practice. According to the index, Concordia’s policies regarding free speech receive a B, while its practices earn a C for 2017. The Concordia Student Union (CSU) was given an F for its policies and a C for its practices.

These findings seem quite concerning. As I’m sure most people would agree, universities are meant to be bastions of free speech. Various media outlets seem to share this concern. Articles by Maclean’s and the CBC have outlined the supposed demise of free speech on Canadian university campuses, citing the Campus Freedom Index as evidence.

As with so many discussions in the media about the free speech debate, these articles fail to critically engage with the ideology behind the Campus Freedom Index and other free speech crusades. In particular, considering the known ideological leanings of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, it’s imperative that we frame any of their findings appropriately.

So, in the interest of free speech, here is the other side of the argument. The JCCF is an organization that spends much of its time defending campus anti-abortion groups. We must remember that abortion rights in Canada are not a given. Many groups are still actively working to undermine and reverse current protections. Last month, the membership of the second-largest federal political party in Canada nearly voted to revoke restrictions on anti-abortion legislation being introduced in Parliament.

When abortion rights are limited or revoked, mothers die. It’s as simple as that. Moreover, the tactics used by anti-abortion groups frequently cross the line into direct harassment. Even so, the JCCF is actively defending a group that set up a prominent anti-abortion display in the middle of the University of Alberta campus. Vulnerable members of our communities are targeted by such displays. And so, by giving a platform to these sorts of ideas, we risk further marginalizing people and silencing their voices and ideas.

Universities and student organizations have a duty to protect their students. They are responsible for creating a space where everybody can engage in academic debate and discussion. If universities allow harassing, violent speech on campus—if they help foster unsafe spaces—they are limiting the number of voices that will be heard in any given debate.

Paradoxical as it may seem, reasonable limits on speech are necessary for free speech to thrive. Limits on paper are necessary to eliminate greater restrictions in practice by those with more structural power. I am proud to be a member of a student union whose policies actively bolster the voices of the marginalized. I am proud to study at a school that understands that totally unfettered speech on campus is not a standard to which we should aspire.

The debate over free speech on campus likely won’t end anytime soon. In a political and philosophical minefield, there aren’t any easy solutions. What I do hope for, at least, is that we can lift the veneer of neutrality in calls for “free speech on campus.”

In particular, when the free speech debate enters the world of actual policy—such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s threat to withhold funding from universities that do not comply with his government’s narrow definition of free speech—we need to engage with the deeply ideological frameworks that calls for free speech rest upon. Free speech, as championed by the JCCF and the Ford government, among others, limits the speech of the marginalized. Media that report on these groups must grapple with that reality, lest they be complicit in that same marginalization.

Archive graphic by Zeze Le Lin

 

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