Censored: how do we deal with hate on campus?

University campuses should be open to any speakers 

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I’m from a small town and whenever I go home, I often end up listening to the political views of people, many of them of a different generation, that differ widely from my own. Last Thursday, I read an article in my local newspaper arguing against Muslim people having prayer time or space during school, ending with the ominous quote on diversity: “it will not unite us and if it is allowed it is another step away from our Christian values.” 

Wouldn’t it be nice if you simply didn’t have to hear views you disagree with? Wouldn’t it be great if the paper just didn’t publish an article that I found to be antithetical to the values I want to be a part of my community? Maybe. But I think this kind of thinking may have some unintended consequences.

In the past few months, there has become an increasing number of conservative speakers who’ve been banned from speaking at university and college campuses across North America. The most explosive example recently was a riot breaking out at UC Berkeley after alt-right ‘intellectual’ Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. His visit was cancelled as a result.

Though standing up for your beliefs is important, the tactics often used on university campuses to block these speakers run contrary to the values of free speech. It’s a slippery slope towards censorship when we begin to silence people because of differing political views.

The problem lies in where these lines should be drawn and who has a right to decide. Legally, the line is drawn at hate speech, but this line is often blurred.

Free speech is about protecting unpopular opinions — those often not held by the majority — and what constitutes an unpopular opinion will clearly change over time. It would be short-sighted to simply allow that the majority-held political opinion gets to decide who has the right to speak.

Queen’s isn’t a stranger to controversial speakers, although none have garnered the same reaction as Yiannopoulos. For instance, last year saw NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden speak to a large crowd of students on campus.

It is very possible that in the coming months, Queen’s will have to face a similar decision about whether speakers should be allowed on campus. For example, Kellie Leitch, a right-leaning candidate in the Conservative Party leadership race is a Queen’s graduate with strong ties to the university.

A self-governing institution has every right to decide who speaks on their premises. But there will always be another campus for a person to speak on and opposing the ability of speech for those we disagree with validates the persecution often claimed by those individuals. Being able to point to stories of actual censorship helps legitimize irrational and xenophobic ideas by creating sympathy for the cause that promotes them.

Speakers who aren’t welcomed to university campuses are often associated with an ideology deemed harmful by those who oppose them. However, such speakers are often invited by students themselves interested in hearing what they have to say. We should work to identify and disarm the issues that may already exist on that campus, instead of simply pretending it doesn’t exist. No matter how hateful some ideas are, they exist and have to be examined.

For example, lawyer Marie Heinen sparked backlash earlier this year when she was scheduled to speak at Bishop’s University, due to her defense of Jian Ghomeshi in his trial for sexual assault. Instead of opposing this visit however, a more fruitful endeavour would be to take a serious look at sexual assault on university campuses and the obvious evidence of many students who were affected by her visit.

I get it. I dislike Yiannopoulos or any other alt-right speaker as much as the next. But I believe it is a fundamental betrayal of fair and just values to revert to the tactics of shutting down conversation. It’s up to people to win in the realm of ideas, not censor ideas that make them uncomfortable.

Queen’s offers many opportunities to hear influential and intelligent people speak. Conferences, speaker series and lectures are common occurrences. We are able to benefit from these because of Queen’s reputation as a place of learning and engagement, a space that’s worth preserving. 

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