Free speech questioned
Universities are known as havens of free speech, but some institutions and students’ associations have gone too far when it comes to regulating what can and can’t be said on campus, according to a recent panel.
Free speech is being threatened on university campuses across Canada, RightsWatch conference speakers said at the University of Calgary on Oct. 22.
The national civil liberties conference included former University of Calgary Students’ Union president Charlotte Kingston who said students’ associations sometimes blatantly overstep their authority by silencing student voices.
“We represent our students, not just the ones who share our views,” Kingston said. “We represent them as students, not as people.”
She referred to the University of Ottawa’s decision, in conjunction with their student union, to cancel a speech by right-wing pundit Ann Coulter in March 2010 following protests by students over her antagonistic anti-liberal commentary.
“There is no justification for student unions to shut down that conversation because of their distaste of the viewpoints expressed,” Kingston said.
She said students’ associations should not exceed “the scope of their capacity” by issuing policy regulations for anything that does not apply to the quality, accessibility and affordability of student life.
Speakers at the conference also brought up issues hitting closer to home.
John Carpay, the lawyer for U of C students belonging to the Campus Pro-Life group, stressed the importance of counter-speech in a healthy society.
His clients were threatened with sanctions for non-academic misconduct in April 2010 after refusing to stop displaying signs with graphic images of aborted fetuses.
“Censorship is particularly harmful on campus,” Carpay said. “The purpose of a university — it’s mission and it’s vision — is to pursue truth and the dissemination of knowledge.”
He said it’s the responsibility of individuals, not authorities, to take action against things they find harmful or hateful.
“The moment that an authority figure starts to weigh in and determine what material is or is not acceptable — that’s the moment that we as citizens have lost our freedom of expression.
“It’s up to us as people to exercise our civic responsibilities,” Carpay said, adding that the only exceptions are violence, genocide and other matters violating the criminal code.
The RightsWatch conference, which is in its third year, has not been held outside of Toronto before.