Campus free speech – Minority rights, democratic values

Are students and academics free to speak their minds on university and college campuses in North America? And how should higher education institutions respond when one person’s free speech silences or harms another? These issues were highlighted during the fourth annual Worldviews Lecture, held on 5 April at the University of Toronto, Canada.

University World News is a partner to Worldviews.

Such questions have become increasingly important as higher education administrators in the United States, Canada and beyond look at debates raging around free speech on campuses, as well as its intersection with the media.

“The battle lines are drawn,” said Worldviews speaker Professor Sigal Ben-Porath, author of the book Free Speech on Campus and chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Committee on Open Expression.

On the one side, she said, are those who support free speech because they see it is as a basic democratic principle, while on the other side are those committed to social justice and what they see as creating a safe space for learning.

These stark differences were put forth by Ben-Porath at the event organised by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

A hot topic

The lecture was held against a backdrop of recent campus incidents in the United Kingdom, America and Canada that have seen protests, counter-protests and letter writing campaigns, coupled with heightened attention from the media, the general public and politicians.

Whether in Oxford, Charlottesville or Toronto, these incidents highlight the tensions between protecting free expression and maintaining an inclusive environment on campuses.

In Ben-Porath’s view, there are three ways in which the tensions can be better understood: by the substance of the arguments; by their impact; and by the broader public debate about them.

As the discussions over free speech on campuses have encompassed a variety of disciplines, she said, it is important to hold many of these within their relevant disciplinary realms: “For colleagues and peers to discuss a specific argument, claim or points of data, is for the university to operate according to its regular order and mission.”

Ben-Porath added that this is important to remember in the context of outside visitors who are invited to speak on campus, but sometimes come to provoke or propagate inflammatory ideas. Yet it is not just outside visitors who fail to grasp the differences between how academe is supposed to work and how broader society does.

Some voices today “call for an experience-and-identity-based epistemology. In other words, they suggest that people should only be allowed to speak about their own experiences, based on personal histories and perspective,” she said. In her view, this approach is too narrow, because it does not permit enough engagement across different experiences.

Debate is vital

Ben-Porath then addressed the crux of much of the current debate: “If what I’m saying is hurtful, or harmful to you, should I be prevented from saying that?”

While she agrees that ideas need to be vigorously debated on campus, Ben-Porath also believes that ‘dignitary safety’ – or the sense of belonging and the confidence of being seen as an equal member of the campus community – is necessary for learning and expanding knowledge.

“Concerns about harm and hurt can generate a chilling environment for speech, one which silences legitimate views. At the same time the effort to weaponise the free speech discussion creates its own challenges,” she noted.

While neither the political left nor the right has ownership over the issue, both sides of the spectrum have found media allies willing to abet in spreading their viewpoints. “This is not unique to our era,” said Ben-Porath, before adding: “What is new right now is the level of scrutiny by the public and especially the polarised media.” To her, this is most striking in the US, where the level of media attention surrounding the topic of speech on campus has created flashpoints in so-called culture wars.

There is no blanket solution that will work everywhere, but Ben-Porath is adamant that the debate is vital to the relevance and future of academe.

“I don’t want to give up this important tool – free speech – especially on our college campuses, by permitting the blunt legal and regulatory tools of censorship, punishment and prevention. However, rejecting censorship and speech regulation of other types is not the end, but rather the start of the conversation about campus speech.”

Panel discussion

In a panel discussion that followed the lecture, Jasmin Zine, a professor of sociology and the Muslim studies option at Waterloo and Brantford, Ontario-based Wilfred Laurier University, reflected on the limits of free speech, which she said is not an unbridled right.

She specifically worried about how the alt-right and neo-fascist fringes are making their presence known on campuses, stating that these groups sometimes engage in harassment and intimidation under the cover of a free speech alibi.

Zine said that it is important to exercise caution in inviting speakers who are known from their past track record to incite public hatred.

The topic is particularly relevant to Zine, as just weeks earlier her campus was the scene of protests when a far-right commentator was invited to speak. (The talk was cancelled when someone activated a fire alarm as the event was beginning.)

“Universities are being baited to allow these ideologues to speak on campus or else be accused of censorship.” To those who say that allowing such outsiders to speak on campus promotes dialogue, Zine disagrees. “I find this incredibly misguided. Students do not need a front row seat to hate… to interrogate these views.”

Free expression and inclusivity

The discussion also looked at the need to delineate the boundaries between free speech and hate speech. The legal differences between jurisdictions were touched upon by Paul Axelrod, former dean of the faculty of education at Toronto’s York University.

“Canada, unlike the US, [has] adopted anti-hate legislation which arguably has made it illegal for groups like Nazis to propagate their messages in the community or on campus.”

Axelrod believes that Canadian hate laws should be applied on campuses, although he admits that the bar for legally labelling something as hate speech is high. “And if there are doubts we should err on the side of speech.”

In summing up the lecture and discussion, Axelrod emphasised the importance of maintaining campuses as places where ideas can confront each other through civil discourse, rather than becoming political battlegrounds.

“The values and practices of free expression and inclusivity can and should be reconciled,” he said. “We should not be choosing one over the other. We should be embracing both.”