Free speech on campus: an in-depth look

The topic of free speech on university campuses continues to provoke debate and criticism in the wake of recent on-campus incidents. 

One incident saw Carleton University President Roseann Runte coming under scrutiny in January, after an email titled “A Reflection for 2017” was sent out to students to promote the principle of free speech. The email was sent following various protests on campus in the fall semester.

The email appeared to call campus protesters “noisy persons” who “fail to recognize [that] by preventing their duly-elected representatives to carry out their mandate, they themselves are contravening the basic principle of a civil society.”

Samiha Rayeda, the volunteer, outreach, and programming coordinator for Carleton’s Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), said the term “noisy persons” seemed to refer to the students who protested Carleton’s sexual violence policy and Board of Governors.

“Carleton has been aggressive with us,” Rayeda said.

Just last week, University of Toronto (U of T) psychology professor Jordan Peterson gave a talk at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where a crowd gathered outside to protest Peterson’s refusal to call transgender students with their preferred pronouns, according to CBC.

Earlier this year in February, U of T student newspaper The Varsity reported that an event featuring Peterson and Ezra Levant, head of right-wing news publication The Rebel, was shut down by protesters.

Free speech policies and related incidents on campus are subject to scrutiny, namely by the The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF), which publishes an annual Freedom Campus Index that assigns letter grades to Canadian universities based on their free speech practices and policies.

The index has been published annually since 2011. The organization stated on their website that they use “specific, measurable and replicable” criteria to assess free speech on Canadian university campuses.

The 2016 index showed that 7 student unions were given F grades, while 25 universities out of 60 were given F grades.

How does the JCCF rank campuses?

JCCF evaluates both the university and the student union based on practices as well as policies.

According to the JCCF’s website, universities must adhere to four factors to receive an “A” grade; most notably a commitment to free speech on campus set out in the university’s mission or vision statement on academic freedom, and a lack of a “speech code” prohibiting unpopular or controversial speech on grounds of it being “offensive,” “discriminatory,” “disrespectful,” or “triggering.”

The JCCF also gives universities a higher grade if they have an anti-disruption policy, which prohibits people from blocking, obstructing, or disrupting speeches, events, or displays on campus.

Failing to meet any of this criteria warrants an “F” grade, which Carleton received in 2016.

When the index was released, Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) president Fahd Alhattab told The Charlatan that “it’s an interesting index,” but admitted the student union doesn’t check the index every year to evaluate their practices and policies.

Randal Marlin, a Carleton University philosophy professor, said the significance of the F Carleton received by JCCF cannot be assessed without knowing the full details connected with that assessment.

Marlin said he thinks the grade initially seems like something bad. But he added if Canada was given an F for free speech because of its hate propaganda law, or because of its prohibitions against tobacco advertising, he would not necessarily view the F as a bad thing, in the light of other societal values.

What does free speech look and sound like?

Rayeda said free speech is “absolutely essential to democracy.”

“It is important that we have the right and freedom to speak up and criticize a state that is actively oppressing the rights of others,” she said via email.

But she said someone like U of T professor Peterson is practicing hate speech rather than free speech.

“Free speech does not give people the right to attack others and refuse to use someone’s pronouns, because that is not free speech. That is hate,” Rayeda said. “They are denying someone’s existence and claiming that their political views are more important than a persons right to be acknowledged for who they are.”

Christie Blatchford, a Toronto-based journalist, said free speech looks like “chaos and sounds like the Tower of Babel—everyone yelling and bitching about everything.”

She said it’s important to have free speech on campus because students will likely be exposed to many different people, with presumably different views.

“How can any of them benefit if speech is stifled?” she said.

Marlin said free speech is not defined as being able to say whatever you like whenever you like.

“Free speech can be defined minimally as the absence of prohibition against anyone expressing their sincerely held beliefs even when these run counter to prevailing doctrines of religion, politics, cosmology, and ideology in a general sense,” he said.

Marlin said it’s very common for people to be in favour of free speech when the speech in question expresses something they believe in and cherish. He said likewise, people tend to want to suppress speech they find outrageous.

“We have to bear in mind that others may have a right to freedom from speech, so that the right to speech does not get construed as a duty of everyone to listen to you,” Marlin said.

Free speech versus hate speech

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under Section 2.(b) of the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms, and limited by Section 1., which states that the rights and freedoms set out in the Charter are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Marlin said the interpretation of the Supreme Court of Canada is that the prohibition of hate speech does not extend to all speech that in ordinary language might be said to be “hate speech.”

“Some forms of hate speech may not violate the criminal law, but they may breach our sense of morality where they inflict distress on another person,” Marlin said.

Rayeda said the right of free speech protects individuals from being silenced by the government, but “it does not allow or make space for hate speech to be spewed, nor does it prevent others from speaking out against hate speech.”

– Photo by Trevor Swann