Letter: Stifling free speech ends productive discussion

September means the start of the school year. It also means a host of kickoff events at universities across the country. Ryerson University was set to hold an academic event about free speech with contentious professor Jordan Peterson on Aug. 22, but cancelled it. According to the National Post, it was due to activists on Facebook threatening violent disruption and Ryerson claiming to lack the security personnel to deal with the protestors.

The cancellation of this event does not come as a surprise. Peterson has been taking heat for his criticism of political correctness—in particular, his refusal to address students by their preferred pronouns.

This has been happening since September 2016 when he released the first installment of a three-part lecture series entitled “Professor against political correctness: Part 1: Fear and the Law.” Since then, he has attracted international attention in his quests to defend free speech and denounce identity politics.

This past March, Peterson was invited to speak in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada about the psychology of creativity. Despite the topic being his specific research interest, the event was met with protests and petitions organized by people in Ottawa as an attempt to deny his right to speak on the grounds that he is accused of being a fascist. 

It is one thing to disagree with an individual’s viewpoint but it is another to try to deny them the opportunity to express that view. Under section 2b of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, every Canadian has the right to free expression. In the United States, there is the First Amendment which guarantees the protection of free speech. These laws show how free speech is a cornerstone of a free society.

By forbidding someone from speaking, you are terminating an opportunity for productive engagement. You might disagree with the ideas; they might even be offensive but they will not go away through being silenced. It is crucial to challenge ideas and prove the flaws within them. You might not be able to change the mind of the person holding the ideas but you can make them think and better yet, change the opinions of those around you.

Why is this not happening on university campuses? Students are using certain tactics to shut down any discussion of ideas they do not agree with. At the recently cancelled Ryerson event, protesters called Peterson a fascist and used this as grounds to bar him from speaking. Ironically, his panel was meant to be about stifling free speech and the protesters only proved his point by silencing him.

Peterson is not the only individual whose ideas are shut down and therefore left unchallenged. Milo Yiannopoulos, a political commentator and author associated with the political alt-right has received his fair share of cancelled events and bans on social media. Despite holding unpopular opinions, Yiannopoulos has gained traction by being silenced. He has received more attention through stifling his speech than he would have if his ideas had been challenged or ignored.

Horrible ideas are common and genuinely dangerous forms of speech, while rare, are real, which is why there are limits on free expression in Canada.

According to Canadian Justice Laws, hate speech is a crime in Canada, meaning you can be punished for broadcasting or publishing statements that advocate genocide or incite hatred against an identifiable group. This protects the spread of hatred against members of vulnerable groups.

Given existing legal protections, it is difficult to make the argument that individuals such as Peterson should not be allowed to speak.

University students need to understand that disagreement, no matter how vehement, represents a chance for dialogue and, if all goes well, rational persuasion.

Barring that, declining to attend an event is to be preferred to any attempt at forcibly ending it.

An empty room with a speaker standing at the front alone sends a much louder message about their ideas than banning them from speaking.

Students get to make the choice about what is better because, either way, unpopular ideas will always be out there and it is up to you to decide what will be done about them.