Queen’s needs freedom of speech

Contentious conversations have a place worth protecting on university campuses

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Many North American university campuses are witnessing the rise of an alarming culture that endangers free speech by stifling those with nonconformist views.

Where a university used to be a marketplace of ideas, a forum to learn by way of boundless inquiry and exposure to contrasting opinions, several are now beginning to resemble a factory-type production line instructing students on what to think, rather than how to think. 

The university must band together to collectively challenge this pernicious trend.

In mustering an appropriate response, it must be understood that the emerging new order extends well beyond the walls of the lecture hall, to also include the climate engendered by the broader university community, not least its own students. 

For this reason, it’s imperative that the student body and all other stakeholders concerned with the delivery of a robust education commit to trading exclusively in the most valuable currency of learning: free speech.

As a recent Queen’s alumnus who keeps a close eye on campus events in both Canada and the United States for the foreshadowing of any prominent social or political issues, I’ve become quite discouraged with the state of free speech at many institutions of higher education. 

Two instances of this climate of asphyxiation are the outcry at University of Toronto over professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns and the recent UC Berkeley riots protesting the speaking appearance of controversial journalist Milo Yiannopoulos.  

The attempts to have Peterson fired and Yiannopoulos banned exemplify problematic themes: not only do many students appear to think their knowledge is at an apex and thus would not benefit from being challenged — stamping a question mark over their pursuit of a degree — but their willingness to damage property in the name of protest denotes a grave irresponsibility. 

The argument that letting Yiannopoulos talk normalizes his brand of provocative politics is dramatically undermined when protestors throw punches and smash windows, potentially normalizing violence as a response to objectionable opinions. 

Though these demonstrators claim to act in the name of tolerance, permitting free expression is a higher order tolerance, for limitations on speech are an ominous first step towards punishment of thought.

Though I share little common ground with both Yiannopoulos and Peterson on many issues, silencing them would be to deny myself the right to hear and learn from their arguments, or at the very least claim vindication for my own views. 

Conversely, those who seek to ban contentious speakers from campuses or ostracize peers for holding the ‘wrong opinion’ must question why their own convictions warrant such protection if their reasoning is so universally evident. 

At any rate, these individuals betray the well-natured intention of the curious student who understands that learning necessarily involves exposure to conflicting perspectives and attempts to curtail speech are an impediment to this end. 

The concern is that this misguided crusade of speech suppression could soon impose itself on the Queen’s community. The university itself is far from immune to this movement, as demonstrated by its recent checkered history on the subject. 

To its credit, Queen’s identifies free inquiry and free expression as essential values on the Secretariat’s website, which also hosts a statement on “Freedom to Read” online. However, in 2013 a free speech wall was removed by the school due to ostensibly ‘offensive content’. The year prior, the school had dismissed professor Michael Mason for employing politically incorrect language despite an independent investigation by the Canadian Association of University Teachers finding that he “discharged his duties... in keeping with professional standards”. 

These inconsistencies paint a puzzling story as to the school’s position on the issue of free speech and expression.

It’s for this reason that I’m petitioning the Queen’s administration to endorse the widely-acclaimed Chicago Principles, as outlined in the University of Chicago’s report on freedom of expression. 

These principles stipulate that a university’s overarching commitment is to vigorous, uninhibited debate, refuting the notion that it should shield its members from ideas they find unwelcome or disagreeable. 

At the same time, the report remarks that on-campus speech must still be held accountable to the law’s parameters, signifying that hate speech, harassment and incitements to violence would remain prohibited. 

Since its release, this carefully-worded manifesto has been publicly endorsed by many American schools such as Princeton and Columbia, so in following suit Queen’s would become the first Canadian university to take this symbolic step. 

Amidst the backdrop of rampant calls for speech codes at many schools, this is a timely opportunity for Queen’s to showcase its leadership on a contemporary issue of utmost importance. 

Free speech is the fundamental underpinning of any society invested in progress because holding space for any and all ideas, even those considered offensive to some, is the most effective filtering system by which to separate valuable from invaluable and good from bad.  

As young adults engaged in our minds’ cultivation, we should be seeking out opinions that differ from our own — the endorsement of the Chicago Principles will ensure that Queen’s fosters the environment for us to fulfill this ambition.

Nick Pateras is a Queen’s Comm '12 and ArtSci '13 alumnus.

 

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