The Issue of Free Speech on University Campuses
Freedom of expression and the right to dissent are essential features of a democracy and without these fundamental freedoms, a vibrant and pluralistic society rapidly disintegrates. Yet, where is the line drawn between informed debate and unreasonable censorship characterized by political correctness running rampant? At present, freedom of expression in universities is blatantly under attack – not a premeditated, organized attack, but an accumulation of episodes that have diminished its significance and centrality to the existence of higher educational institutions. Recent publicized incidents not only represent the latest manifestations in the struggle between free speech and respecting the rights of marginalized communities but are indicative of another equally serious crisis – a battle over the fundamental purpose of universities. Indeed, the apparent erosion of the "free exchange of ideas" today represents a desperate call for universities to uphold free speech—an element central to their mandates and should rightly remain so. And yet, although freedom of expression entails the right to speak, it also necessitates the responsibility to hear. Therefore, reasonable parameters must be in place to ensure the speech is not only respectful of others but is never used to denigrate individuals and people groups to the detriment of Canadian pluralistic society. Universities are under a positive obligation to protect freedom of speech, as the liberty to thoughtfully and peaceably express oneself is a core feature of personal development, a basic human right and the foundation of democratic society.
Universities across Canada find themselves in a precarious situation, as they attempt to balance their traditional mission as an unconditional guardian of free speech with a growing need to accommodate the myriad of beliefs, political stances and cultural perspectives of their student body. Yet, perhaps nowhere else on earth is free speech utilized and sought after with more vigor than on university campuses. Thus, the mission of universities should be to foster an environment where competing standpoints can be laid bare, heard, and evaluated. At the national level, section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication. The guarantee, however, of each of the above rights is restricted to some extent in the name of peace, order and the greater common good. Within the context of university, all institutions must encourage free inquiry and the discovery of knowledge for the betterment of local, national, and even international communities; yet, they also have an obligation to create environments in which their students can study, relatively safe from harm or injury.
Furthermore, freedom of speech is a widely recognized prerequisite for the preservation of a liberal democracy, whose existence hinges on the open exchange of ideas among citizens. Therefore, students should never be fearful of challenging the status quo or voicing unpopular perspectives that defy social conformity. In relation, there is often a misguided assumption that the purpose of education is to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and to liberate the mind. Yet, universities were never created to inculcate a certain point of view but to enable individuals to reach their own conclusions through exploration and discourse.
University students should be led to practice democratic virtues such as equality, tolerance, recognition of reasonable disagreement, and respectful engagement. Thus, if one has a position on a social or intellectual issue, then they should also have the freedom to advance it, in the classroom or in academic research, using appropriate support and respectful language. What is more, outside formal scholarly debates, the exact same rules of conduct should apply to and govern societies, workplaces and daily interactions with fellow students. In the end, upholding a higher standard for those seeking campus platforms does not constitute an attack on democratic free speech; rather, it is a crucial first step in rehabilitating and restoring the kind of public discourse that is worthy of consideration and that is favorable to the development of democratic values and competencies.
Therefore, students must be allowed to continue the relentless, objective, scholarly pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of the human condition within a tolerant and inclusive environment. In short, respectful, informed and value laden speech – that is not limited by intolerant perspectives or causes – is exactly the kind of dialogue that professors should nurture in the classroom. Moreover, this is precisely the type of rational and reasoned discourse in which all individuals, student or not, should be able to engage in, to flush out issues that are particularly sensitive, multifaceted and consequential.
Yet, campaigns for free speech have made a paradoxical switch from advocating for freedom of speech to demanding freedom from speech; in other words, protection from discomfort. And yet, obstructionist protesters are not exercising "a protected right to free speech,” but rather are shutting down the free exchange of ideas. In the end, educational institutions should not provide a spotlight for those who blatantly disregard basic democratic and intellectual standards that form the basis of our multicultural society; rather, they should fight against the pervasive degradation of thoughtful discourse and strive to foster models of speech that deserve the undivided attention of our communities.
One could conclude that the threat today is not free speech per se, but rather its bastardized form which has egregiously rejected of any standards of conduct whatsoever. Creeping into nearly every realm of civil society is a language that has debased public discourse with petty insults and infantile taunts, void of any notion of professionalism. When viewed in this way, restrictions on “hate speech” do not infringe on speech rights but actually facilitate and refine our understanding of free speech by decontaminating social discourse infused with blatant and harmful untruths.
Perhaps the greatest failure of higher education is neglecting to teach the intellectual habits that promote discussion, tolerance for views we despise, epistemic humility, and sincere pluralism. While institutions of higher learning should not be incubators of intellectual comfort, they should neither facilitate the toxic use of polarized rhetoric that explicitly denigrates certain ethnicities, religions, political belief systems, and sexual orientations or preferences. Therefore, universities should strive to raise levels of public discourse and to support fundamental, invaluable standards of speech – civility, courteousness and accountability.
While universities should indisputably protect all manifestations of free speech, this is just the start of their aggregate mission. Universities must also endorse the value of worthy speech, which seeks greater insight or to offer a rational defense of a position, rather than merely to provoke or debase a particular audience. Undoubtedly, when those with unpopular views or those who oppose prevalent ideologies are silenced, students lose the opportunity to hear all sides of an issue and subsequently, come to their own conclusions. However, advocating for and enforcing the notion of worthy speech means that a university will sometimes need to deny individuals a public platform, since classrooms are not public forums but are subject to restrictions of time, place and manner that are content neutral by nature, in order that an environment of learning may be maintained.
As Jason Blum so eloquently puts it, worthy speech is both intellectually and morally responsible, “beholden to basic standards of discourse and behavior, such as avoiding gross generalizations, refraining from the cavalier dismissal of established knowledge (including facts that are inconvenient for one's position), eschewing ad hominem attacks, and demonstrating a basic level of respect for one's interlocutors.” Therefore, while students are within the arena of education and must engage in discourse in a way that is both rigorous yet civil, courteous yet still challenging.
In the end, each and every student should have the opportunity to hear – and challenge – a wide range of differing opinions, including opinions that may offend them. Thus, the only restriction to free speech should be when it obstructs the primary purpose of universities by perpetuating discriminatory and debasing language, and blatantly fails to recognize the humanity in those who hold opposing views. Ultimately, places of higher education must facilitate the realization that each human being is uniquely endowed with faculties that illustrate their intrinsic value, such as the potential power to think, to will, to intuit, to be creative and so on; these remarkable abilities are further developed and matured with the exercise of free speech. Every argument embodying the transcendent values of humility and respect for diversity is worthy of consideration and holds the potential to bring positive change to our present realities, in turn, healing the cleavages of our society.