Bad speech is still free speech

University campuses must remain open to full discussion

LettersToTheEditorGraphic by Evan Tremblay.

I certainly understand the point the author is trying to make in the Sept. 6 editorial, “The so-called free speech crisis on university campuses is a fabrication.” That is, in an attempt to legitimize their despicable message, the neo-fascist alt-right and their ilk are crying that their right to freedom of expression is being trampled in the vociferous and sometimes violent objections to their ability to disseminate their ideas in public fora, including on university campuses.

The author justifies censorship of this type in terms of a legitimate response to protect the interests of the “communities who pay the highest price for the speaker’s so-called free speech,” claiming that this is merely “the community putting limits on what speech is considered acceptable.” In this way, the author sets up the argument that the free speech crisis on campuses “is a power struggle – one to seize the means of speaking freely.”

The author is viewing this issue as a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game where any group representing “the community” can use whatever means they choose to silence the other in defence of community standards.

Lost in this discussion and passion is the reality that the fundamental right to free speech is the cornerstone of democracy, and underlays all other democratic rights. Without the right to free speech, you can have no real freedom of the press, assembly, or association. There is no point in freedom of conscience and freedom of thought if you cannot give expression to your thoughts and conscience.

Speech that expresses hate – saying I hate you, your religion, your race, and so on – is still a legally protected form of expression. What I cannot do is incite others to violence against you, or against any race or religion.

Consider the case of David Ahenakew who, in remarks to a reporter, claimed Jewish people were a “disease” that started World War II. Though a judge called his remarks concerning Jews “revolting, disgusting, and untrue,” they did not constitute ”promoting hatred,” and were therefore lawful.

The way to test the strength of the author’s argument that censorship is a justifiable community response is to reverse the circumstances, and see if the argument retains its validity.

Suppose that neo-fascists were the majority and that minority communities were those espousing democratic ideals. Would it then be the right of the fascists, in defence of their communities, to silence those promoting democratic ideals and attack the fundamental rights of the minority democrats? Obviously not.

The rights of minorities to speak freely in defence of their situation and ideals is critical to an effective democracy. Without it, there is tyranny of the majority, and democracy cannot survive, for a foundational principle of our democracy is the protection of minorities and their rights. Not just the protection of minorities that agree with the majority, or minorities that agree only with one another, but all minorities. Without these protections, no one is free and no one is safe; you are left with only the rights of the powerful.

Finally, this university and all universities must be a bastion of free expression. Campuses have to be fertile ground for free speech and ideas that have the capacity to change the world. But can they remain so when it is becoming harder and harder to have a full and free discussion of ideas?

When abhorrent speech and ideas are presented, it is our right – and I would say, responsibility – to speak up and rebut them with facts, logic, passion – and superior ideas.

It is even our right to protest and shout down those that espouse ideas that are anathema to us. In fact, silencing our opponents by shouting them down and ostracizing them is far easier than standing toe-to-toe with them in the arena of ideas. And by arguing with them, we argue in defence of fundamental human rights, liberalism, and democracy.

Yes, I hate what the neo-fascists have to say, and I can’t stand the narrow-mindedness and specious rationalizations of Ann Coulter and her ilk.

But if we are to be the leaders of tomorrow, we have to start by being leaders in fighting for fundamental rights on our own campus, beginning with free speech. To do otherwise is to follow the way of the coward.