Dictatorships rise when free speech dies. When one idea dominates and suffocates everything to the point that those with controversial opinions are effectively silenced, without recourse, a free society has effectively ended. George Orwell wrote about this in his famous novel 1984.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it,” Orwell wrote.

One of the foundations for a free society is the open and unfettered dialogue between opposing viewpoints, with an important part of democratic societies being universities and colleges. But are these institutions still promoters and protectors of free speech?

As the free speech debate intensifies, so does the hostility over controversial speakers on college campuses. These speakers have caused some students to publicly voice opposing opinions, with some protesters turning violent, particularly in the United States.

The violence seen in the United States has not taken hold in Canada in the same way, but just the threat of violence was enough for some universities to cancel events.

These tend to affect more controversial speakers such as the University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson who made headlines with his fight against Bill C-16, the Canadian bill which appends the laws of Canada to include gender identity or expression.

Under certain hate speech laws, Peterson believes him and other Canadians who agree with his stance could be held liable for not agreeing to use gender neutral pronouns. Due to his controversial ideas, he was no-platformed at Ryerson University because of the perceived threat of protest that could occur with him showing up to the campus.

“C-16 would be interpreted within the policy precedents already established by the Ontario Human Rights Commission so when I looked on the website I thought well there’s broader issues at stake here and I tried to outline some of those broader issues,” said Peterson in the C-16 senate hearing. “I made some videos criticizing bill C-16 and a number of the policies that surround it and I think the most egregious elements of the policies are that it requires compelled speech.”

While organizations try to censor and no-platform certain people, there are groups all around Canada fighting for the ability of others to express themselves so long as it doesn’t infringe the Canadian laws. One of these groups is the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which has associates around the country fighting court cases where infringements on free speech have occurred.

The president of JCCF, John Carpay, said, “I started the JCCF in 2010 with a mission to defend constitutional freedoms.”

Carpay dealt with many cases before starting the JCCF, but one of their first cases was Wilson versus the University of Calgary where a pro-life student group was being censored by the university.

“The university succumbed to complaints; people didn’t like the content of the expressions [and] threatened the [pro-life student group] with trespassing on their own campus,” said Carpay. “The case was eventually thrown out by the Crown [attorney] office.”

The university once again tried to take the student group off campus by going after them through non-academic misconduct for peacefully expressing their views on public grounds and the JCCF once again took the school to court.

person holding sign citing charterA Mount Royal University student holds a sign depicting the charter of right’s and freedoms defining freedom of speech. Photo by Brad Simm

The JCCF won the case with the judge saying that the university was being unreasonable. So there is now a precedent that universities can’t censor controversial opinions and the expression of them in the public areas of the campuses.

This win helps with how the judicial branch handles cases of censorship on public property as universities could no longer censor speech that others find offensive.

However, other groups are fighting that certain ideas and language have no place in public and should be stifled. The Calgary Anti-Fascist Action takes action against those who publicly espouse ideas that they disagree. Axmeg Brazźer takes part in the counter protests they engage in.

“If you want to have a conversation, if you want to have a certain discussion, you should do it in private, you should rent out a hall you should invite speakers to come,” Brazźer said. “It’s a little dicey at university campuses but it might be better if you did it [at] a private spot.”

During the celebration of the cancelling of Ryerson’s The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses event, many student groups went out chanting, “Smash racism. No platform for fascists!”

Universities have been using these occurrences to block free expression under the guise of safety, with certain institutions charging student organizations high fees to allow speakers to come onto campuses.

An event that has gotten much attention comes from the University of Berkeley charging the conservative student group, the Young America’s Foundation, figures up to $15,000 for Ben Shapiro, a controversial conservative speaker and editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire, to do an event there.

The University of Alberta is currently facing a similar circumstance with plans to charge
a pro-life group $17,500 in security fees, making the planned demonstration a non-starter. This group has done similar protests in the past but with the cost being so large they cancelled the event.

“I’m hopeful that people who love the free society work hard, fight hard we will still have a good future.” –John Carpay

“I’m not aware of universities saying you’re not allowed to say certain things but now they are letting the mob do it for them,” Carpay said.

Peaceful protest and dialogue dies when someone is shouted down and not allowed to speak, but for some this is the only way to fight what they believe to be violent words, ideas and ideologies.

“You’re not exposing people who don’t need to see that,” Brazźer said. “Who might be triggered by stuff like that. If you’re escaping from another country as a refugee… that’s going to cause emotional damages.”

Institutes opt for these tactics and create statements like what Ryerson wrote on a Facebook post, “There is often a tension at universities resulting from our commitment to be a place for free speech and our commitment to be a place that is civil, safe, and welcoming. At this time, Ryerson University is prioritizing campus safety.”

As the fight for free speech is happening in courts in Canada, this argument has been in full swing in the United States with government educational institutions facing financial problems.

“One of the ways the government can protect free speech is to defund colleges that infringe on free speech,” Carpay said.

In the U.S., where universities have not defended free speech, lawmakers have wanted to defund the public institutions such as Evergreen State College and the University of Missouri.

If they are successful these campuses would no longer receive tax-payer money, effectively making them private institutions.

While the government takes steps to encourage freedom of speech on college campuses, the public also have taken actions to put pressure on colleges.

People have started to withhold donations to campuses such as University of Missouri where freedom of expression and speech is stifled, forcing universities and colleges to close down sections of the institution, or even outright avoiding the college.

This has seen institutions losing students with places like University of Missouri losing 13 per cent enrollment after a major protest where faculty facilitated censorship on the media trying to cover the event.

“You can’t predict what things will be like five or ten years from now,” Carpay said. “I’m hopeful that people who love the free society will work hard and fight hard so we will still have a good future.”


Editor: Mason Benning | mbenning@cjournal.ca

This story can also be found in the November 2017 print edition of the Calgary Journal. 

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