This column was drawn from opening remarks presented at a March 27 Macdonald-Laurier Institute debate in Ottawa, on the resolution : “Free speech in Canadian Universities is an endangered species.”
In an era of a billion virtual soapboxes on the Internet, does the university have a special responsibility to defend free speech on controversial issues and provide space for fiery public debate ? Does every crackpot, eccentric, provocateur or bona fide activist have a right to speak on campus ?
The 2013 “campus freedom index” from the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom found that 23 out of 45 universities surveyed prevented groups such as anti-abortionists, pro-lifers, Israel apartheid supporters and anti-Palestinian speakers on campus from delivering their messages. Are universities running away from controversy and the free exchange of ideas ? For now, this fear is overblown.
Each year, there are more than 2,000 invited speakers coming to Canadian universities, speaking on every subject conceivable from every point of view. Out of this group, 23 speakers or groups were refused an invite ? Hardly a paralyzing moment, and only for libertarians is it a red flag. Why ? The simple answer is that a high-priced celebrity speaker such as Ann Coulter, to use a favourite example, has a million platforms for anyone interested in her message.
In theory, free speech is the right to voice your opinion without reprisal or recrimination. Unfettered free speech is the foundation for a strong, vibrant society. Hearing all sides of every point of view is of immense value because everyone needs to be informed, and to be informed is to be responsible.
But freedom of opinion is not an absolute right — you cannot disrupt classes, you cannot prevent others from speaking, you cannot advocate hatred, racism, ethnic discrimination, deny the Holocaust. The university and faculty are subject to criminal law, Canada’s hate laws in particular, and human rights legislation. So however broad the concept, there is no absolute right to free speech. The university can choose who gets a platform ; who is allowed to speak and who gets invited into the conversation.