The Modern University Campus: Free Speech-free Zone?

In light of the recent experience of my fellow AIMS intern Ian CoKehyeng and the Carleton Students for Liberty’s Free Speech Wall, it is timely to make a comment on free speech and its state in university campuses today.  The free speech wall was put up by SFL for students to write whatever they felt like expressing.  The day it was put up, it was torn down by—ironically—a human rights major, ostensibly because it could incite violence.  Freedom of speech is a freedom guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  It is a fundamental human right, allowing citizens to express themselves, exchange opinions and participate in the processes governing them.  If the “human rights” student who tore down the Free Speech Wall disagreed with the views expressed, he was of course free to debate those views and counter them with his own.  He chose instead to set himself up as chief censor, forcibly suppressing the views of others.

Unfortunately, this student’s attitude is all too common on university campuses today.  As Rex Murphy argued in a recent column, the individual who tore down the wall is a creature of his environment—the modern university.  Speech codes, equity imperatives, and suppression of conservative views are the “hallmark of the modern enlightened campus,” Mr. Murphy writes. “The label of campus activist produces…a kind of totalism: Everyone on one side is bold and true; everyone on the other side comprises a band of bigots, haters and religionists.”

Carleton University was given a failing grade in the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedom’s Campus Freedom Index last year, but intolerance is not unique to that campus.  The other day I overheard a student from the Conservative Association of my university say that students from the Marxist society had torn down their posters. Free speech laws are not there to protect popular opinions, but to protect the right of dissidents to be heard.  President Barack Obama made a number of points in his UN speech last year which are worth pondering in this instance. The President said:

Real democracy is hard work, and those in power must resist the desire to crack down on dissidents.
Those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others.
The effort to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to oppress minorities; the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression but more speech.

These are the sort of principles institutions of higher learning should promote.   But it seems that the ivory tower today is not only detached from reality but also from its traditional mission: the pursuit of knowledge through the encouragement of free thought and expression.  Political correctness, groupthink and tolerance of intolerance threaten to turn university campuses into free speech-free zones.

-Stami Zafiriou

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