Free speech is under siege on many university campuses, including in Canada. Professors, administrators and students are ‘deplatforming’ invited guests, or disrupting and disparaging their fellow academics who fail to toe the politically correct party line.
With precious little evidence, these speakers are said to be “sexist,” “racist” or “Islamophobic.” So closed-minded enforcers, just like their hockey namesakes, try to prevent these guests from speaking – shouting them down, blocking entrances to lecture halls, setting off fire alarms or physically attacking them.
In March 2017, American political scientist Charles Murray was prevented from speaking at Middlebury College in Vermont. In August 2019, Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was demeaned by hundreds of her colleagues and students for publishing a well-reasoned opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her ‘crime’ was arguing in favour of bourgeois values and against what were once called lower class values.
In Canada, the best known political attack was against the University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who was apparently told by senior university administrators to use gender pronouns like ‘zur’ when speaking to students. Thankfully, Peterson rejected the demand.
Similarly, graduate student Lindsay Shepherd was called into a kangaroo court of senior administrators at Wilfrid Laurier University because, as a graduate teaching assistant, she showed a few minutes of a video – from TV Ontario no less – in which Peterson defended his rejection of some gendered pronouns.
As it turned out, both of these people won their battles, which is rather surprising. Surprising and infrequent, because many others have not.
Consider, for example, the cases of lecturer Paul Bali from Ryerson University, Prof. Ricardo Duchesne at the University of New Brunswick, Prof. Rick Mehta from Acadia and Jeff Muehlbauer, an assistant professor at Brandon University. These intellectuals have suffered conspicuous repercussions for speaking out.
Nevertheless, some recent developments give us renewed hope.
Most important, two Conservative provincial governments, those of Jason Kenney in Alberta and Doug Ford in Ontario, have passed laws requiring universities to establish free speech on campuses or suffer financial penalties.
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Given the ideological standoff on Canadian campuses today, such draconian laws are needed. A law enforcing free speech is a serious dilemma because it will force universities to accept free speech on campus.
As a result, other provincial governments will probably wait to see what happens before acting themselves.
As well, a committee of distinguished professors at the University of Chicago has written a report on free speech. It reminds professors, administrators and students that free speech is the gold standard for excellent universities.
This committee argues that professors and students need unrestricted freedom to study almost anything and to support or refute any idea, policy or practice existing anywhere in the world. The value of free inquiry is the very reason for universities, and it’s the foundation of free and democratic societies.
The truly fortunate part of this story is that some Canadian universities are beginning to implement the Chicago principles. Policies supporting freedom of speech are slowly creeping through the hallowed halls of universities, at least those in Alberta and Ontario.
A few universities in other provinces even started to recognize free speech as an important issue. Recently, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship sponsored a panel discussion at Concordia University entitled “Disinviting, no-platforming, and disrupting: Do such tactics have a place at the University?”
As well, a group of students and faculty at the University of British Columbia have established a free speech club with Ben Shapiro as the first guest.
This is a beginning.
Nevertheless, we need to remember what Muehlbauer said, after a long and painful ordeal at Brandon University: “I am in the boneyard now,” meaning that his academic life was over.
Unfortunately, academic life may be over on some Canadian universities. An institution without academic freedom is not a real university, and it should not be supported by either taxpaying citizens or fee-paying students.
Rodney A. Clifton is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.