Freedom of expression on university campuses is not an issue

It's about priorities

In light of recent events both on our campus and others across Canada, many feel as though political censorship is running rampant and stands in the way of academic freedom and discussion.

In response to contentious speakers, students and faculty across Canada have urged their academic institutions to prohibit these people from lecturing on their campuses. For example, Jordan Peterson’s recent presence at Queen’s was met with protest, as was right-wing political commentator Faith Goldy’s visit to Wilfrid Laurier University.

These events have sparked debate on whether or not all views should be given a platform for the sake of academic freedom. On top of this, people have wondered whether the rejection of these speakers has indicated an increase in left-leaning politicization on university campuses.

In my opinion, oppressive and prejudicial views shouldn’t be given a platform on campus just because of “academic freedom.” But to understand these debates, we need to take a step back from the events that transpired at the Peterson protest. Albeit an important topic, this discussion is relevant on a larger scale.

The choice to deny a platform for certain views isn’t strictly a political issue. It’s not political censorship. Rather, it’s deliberate prioritization. Denying oppressive views a place to speak in academic institutions is a conscious choice made by the specific institution to prioritize the progression of society and the wellbeing of students.

In reality, not all opinions are deserving of equal respect and promotion on university campuses. This is especially true when they create hostile environments for numerous students, faculty and other members of the community. We can’t forget that students and faculty across Canada hold varying political beliefs, all of which are promoted through clubs, organizations and academic pursuits. No matter the political affiliation, all beliefs should be welcomed on campus.

Beliefs only become unworthy of promotion on university campuses when they become oppressive to students and faculty. There’s no need for oppressive views to be given a platform.

Freedom of expression dictates it’s legal for individuals to express any opinions they may have but within reasonable limits. It doesn’t outline the necessity of universities to provide a platform for these opinions. When universities choose to provide a platform for oppressive beliefs, they make countless marginalized students, faculty and community members feel silenced as well as unsupported in their struggles.

We need to move past the theoretical discussions about freedom of expression. In a perfect world, all opinions would be presented in a neutral way and their objectivity would have no negative implications in an academic setting. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.

Systemic oppression is real, power structures exist and both are perpetuated when prejudice is given a platform at a respected institution. It’s easy for faculty members and students to proclaim, “Academic freedom!” when they’re not the ones facing the consequences of their actions. Not everyone holds academic freedom as a primary concern. Far too many groups must fight for equality and inclusion before they can even think to fight for academic freedom. Granting academia the same level of importance as matters of fundamental human wellbeing comes from a place of privilege.

All of this isn’t to say people must always be completely comfortable with all academic topics. Academic beliefs and opinions shouldn’t go unchallenged; critique and debate are essential parts of academia.

We can’t forget that university is a place where we go to be challenged by other points of view. It’s healthy to debate with someone who disagrees with us. Nevertheless, academic debates must be contextualized. Challenging academic ideas is important, but these topics become personal when they begin to negatively impact and involve the wellbeing and livelihoods of people on campus.

It’s important to promote empathy in situations like these. Academia and empathy aren’t mutually exclusive; academic institutions can foster empathy and inclusion without hindering their capacity for academic discourse.

Choosing not to host prejudiced speakers at academic institutions isn’t jeopardizing anyone’s education, nor is it discrediting the value of freedom of expression. It certainly isn’t leaving contentious views unexamined, unchallenged or silenced. Academic institutions aren’t the be-all and end-all of meaningful discussion in society.

A lot of the meaningful debates we have on university campuses also influence others around the world. With the rise of social media, sites like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit have grown to become forums where debate can occur as well.

It’s time for discussions surrounding inclusivity on campus to step away from a political framework and towards one that focuses on empathy, responsibility and progress. Choosing to prioritize students and their welfare isn’t a statement of party alliance, it’s a statement of compassion.

Grace is a second-year politics major.

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