Commentary | Freedom of expression is integral to education

Freedom to express a wide range of ideas – a privilege of our democracy – is essential in a modern university. Sharing ideas is indispensible to the quest for knowledge, which drives the intellectually curious people who make up a university. It shapes our research and our attempts to discover what we do not yet know. It enriches our understanding, allowing us to add dimension and nuance to what we think we know, and to what we may even take as accepted truths. And it helps us understand that, in fact, there is so much yet to learn.

In a context of intellectual freedom, we expose ourselves to a wide range of ideas. We will agree with some of them and disagree with others; we will be mildly dismissive of some, but we will be repulsed, offended, or even shocked by others. And, with luck, this active engagement with the world of ideas will continue throughout life as we learn more, and some of our perceptions of what is true and what is offensive or nonsensical change.

Accepting and protecting another’s right to express a point of view does not preclude our right to express our own opposing opinion. But there is a crucial difference between expressing disagreement and preventing others from presenting their views in the first place. Keeping others from speaking or otherwise stifling debate or intellectual exploration violates the concept of free speech, which is fundamental to a university and thereby attacks the very core of the academy. A university must provide a very wide berth indeed to the ideas that can be expressed within its community. And that is why it acts to defend the right to free expression when someone attempts to undermine it. But there are limits to what may be said and disseminated on campus. Our legal system prohibits hate speech, defamation (libel or slander), and obscenity – prohibitions that apply here. On campus, there may also be limits imposed on the placement of disturbing images meant to support positions or on handouts to people who have not willingly agreed to accept such materials.

There is an important difference between legally defined hate speech and speech that some find hateful. The former is not permitted; the latter can be, even if some are offended or disturbed by it. Our tolerance may be tested, but as long as the audience is present by choice and not by accident or requirement, even objectionable speech ought to have its place.

The students who sang and shouted down the speaker at the recent Choose Life event violated one of the University’s core values: ideas must be given free expression in a place of learning and discovery. No one was compelled to attend the event; it was scheduled in a room that is not an open public space. No one was forced to see graphic imagery that many would find offensive; the publicity advised that the imagery would be shown, and the images were confined to the room.

Yet the protesters – a small group of self-appointed guardians of “truth” – decided that others should not be allowed to hear the speaker’s views, even adults who voluntarily came to do just that. The protesters assumed that members of our community are not sufficiently mature to decide for themselves whether the speaker’s views are legitimate or nonsense, worthy of debate or worthy of derision.

Some have mistakenly argued that once SSMU voted to censure the Choose Life event, the University had no business allowing the event to proceed. When an event is duly organized according to McGill’s rules, as this one was, no individual or group of individuals – be they parents, donors, a student association, interested outside parties, or others – should be able to restrict free expression on our campuses.

There are legitimate ways to express opposition to a particular view – e.g. debating in good faith or holding an event to present a counter-argument or an opposing point of view. Indicating opposition through protest can itself be legitimate expression. But stifling others’ speech goes too far and undermines a basic tenet of the University. Freedom of expression is a fundamental element of our civilized and democratic society, without which we would be immensely impoverished. We must all do our part to protect this essential right at McGill.

Morton J. Mendelson is the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning). Write him a dry treatise on a controversial topic and send it to morton.mendelson@mcgill.ca.


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