Panel discussion grapples with hate speech, free speech

Department of Philosophy Equity Committee Panel discusses free speech and hate speech on campus

Panelists discussed free speech and hate speech at Wednesday’s event.

The past few years have seen a series of hateful incidents on Queen’s campus. A Wednesday panel discussion about free speech and hate speech cited all of them.

Hosted by the Queen’s Department of Philosophy Equity Committee, the Jan. 29 event referenced 2016’s “culture party,” 2019’s anti-Semitic graffiti, the Chown Hall incident, and the Indigenous art vandalization.

Panelists included Assistant Professor of Philosophy Meena Krishnamurthy, Elder in the Office of Indigenous Initiatives Wendy Phillips, and Assistant Professor of Law Jacob Weinrib.

According to Professor Krishnamurthy, one problem Queen’s faces is a lack of distinction between problematic speech and hate speech.

For her, problematic speech is what people tend to call “offensive.” This type of speech may hurt people’s feelings, but it doesn’t meet the threshold of actual harm, and so interference isn’t justified.

Hate speech, on the other hand, is speech that’s directly harmful because it dehumanizes people. According to Professor Weinrib, hate speech justifies a community’s segregation, makes them out to be less than human, or advocates for their actual harm or abolishment.

What we see on campus is much more mundane than hate speech, according to Krishnamurthy, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Problematic speech is alienating, and it undermines a sense of community on campus.

“Freedom of expression leads a double life,” Weinrib said. “There is the life it has in our imagination, and the life it leads in the law.”

He said that in an individual’s imagination, free speech is a fundamental freedom necessary to a democratic nation, and its limits don’t exist.

By law, free speech is a constitutional right, however, it has number of limits we often forget about, Weinrib explained. It’s illegal to publish election results in one part of Canada before another; illegal to refrain from publishing information on certain consumer packaging; illegal to convince someone to kill someone else, or themselves; and illegal to lie under oath.

There are many instances Weinrib brought to light—aside from hate speech—in which “freedom of speech” is compromised. Weinrib questioned why people get so excited about hate speech specifically.

Hate speech, according to Weinrib, can be summed up as the criminal offences of public incitement of hatred, willful promotion of hatred, and advocation of genocide.

“Hate-speech prohibitions are not designed to protect people from offence or hurt feelings,” he said. “They are designed to stop promotion of the idea that certain persons have no rights and can suffer no wrong.”

To run afoul of the law, a person has to actually promote this hatred, meaning conversations held in private don’t count as a legal breach.

According to Phillips, the idea of hate speech on Indigenous land is particularly abominable. Many people are guests on that land, and so they should act and behave in a manner to promote good relations with one another throughout their stays.

When asked if trying to censor hate speech can actually perpetuate the problem, the panelists agreed it cannot. Although hate speech could reasonably be challenged in a public sphere, the University should focus on making Queen’s feel like a home for all students, and hate speech does not exist in a happy home, according to Krishnamurthy.

“We have to balance people’s comfort against this allowance of airing it out,” she said. “Our job is to create a community that would inherently discourage [hate speech].”

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