Frederick Douglass, Jonathan Swift and Winston Churchill all expressed themselves in ways that offended their opponents, but history judges they were justified. (Wikimedia Commons images)
How freedom of speech is defined and defended on university campuses deserves a rethink. The latest controversy erupted on – you guessed it – social media.
In June, at Dalhousie University, the student union passed a controversial motion to not celebrate Canada 150 on campus, arguing it is an example of oppressive colonialism. I don’t agree, and neither did critics. In response to them, Masuma Khan, an executive member of the student union, posted the following on Facebook, according to the Globe and Mail (her post has since been deleted): “At this point, f*** you all.” She signed off with the hashtags #unlearn150, #whitefragilitycankissmyass and #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis.
I don’t like or endorse how Khan chose to express herself. It was disrespectful and vulgar. But I defend her freedom of speech.
It concerns me that the university – in response to one formal complaint and several informal ones – thought it must intervene and effectively compromise any such freedom. It informally invited Ms. Khan to attend some training on “coalition building” and then write “a reflection” on what she learned. Why? Because her post was “not the kind of respectful and constructive dialogue” that Dalhousie expects of all its students. Khan refused. Dalhousie then said it would convene a formal hearing whose panel could order Khan to do the training.
Freedom of speech exists to protect points of view that are unpopular, and by extension, which offend our sensibilities.
True, free speech has never been absolute. You can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre, and get away with it. You’ll get arrested for disturbing the peace. You can’t defame someone with a good reputation, either, or practice hate speech.
But university policies have gone much further. Dal’s vice-provost said as much in a statement: the university is open to diverse points of view, expressed and explored through “meaningful, thoughtful, constructive and respectful dialogue.” That sounds principled and fair-minded and common-sense. And it is, as an ideal. But as grounds for sanctions, it’s a blunt instrument. It erodes freedom by confining the expression to certain subjective criteria. It does this in an environment that should place more value on the clash of ideas than on politeness or, frankly, feelings.
We actually owe a debt to offensive speech. Some of the late greats of literature and of history were incredibly disrespectful of the powers that be. Swift slammed the British for starving the Irish. Churchill demeaned the appeasers to their faces. Their language was not vulgar but it was so demeaning that it left their opponents spluttering in rage. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously said, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who…want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” Were he alive in the age of social media, Douglass would no doubt roar, and I would want him free to roar, even if it gave offense.
People do not have a right to never be offended. And if they are offended, they have their own defence. If the offender is not harassing you, or advocating violence, or using racist language, then debate the point. Counter-argue. Affirm and express what you believe – as freely as did the person whose views you oppose.
Freedom of speech on campus: do you actually have a right to never be offended? Join the conversation. http://bit.ly/2ldD5W2
Let’s free freedom of speech from the shackles of sanctions because “you offended me.” #freerspeechoncampus