Commentary | The right to an audience

On the separation of academic freedom and free speech

Two weeks ago, at the same time that tension flared at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assembly (GA), a professor at Drexel University, George Ciccariello-Maher, was placed on administrative leave. His suspension was the result of a string of tweets in response to the Las Vegas massacre earlier this year. “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid,” he wrote, discussing how this mass-shooting was a “morbid symptom of what happens when those who believe they deserve to own the world also think it is being stolen from them.” His tweets were misrepresented as victim-blaming by far-right media (including Breitbart and eventually, Fox News), and the threats he received in the following days are what pressured the university to take this decision. Drexel University cites “safety” as their main reason for the suspension, yet they refuse to comment on what measures had been considered before settling on an abrupt and unnecessary moratorium for all of his classes.

Ciccariello-Maher is another victim of the far-right firestorm, one that is determined to silence leftist voices on campuses. He first received widespread notoriety in December 2016 when he tweeted satirically about the myth of White Genocide. A simple Google search is enough to find that White Genocide is a “figment of the racist imagination,” a conspiracy theory fearing that immigration, racial integration, and abortion will result in the “extinction of white people.” Despite the obvious humour, Ciccariello-Maher ended up in the crosshairs of multiple media outlets calling for his immediate dismissal. As a self-identified communist, it became increasingly clear that far-right forces were jarred by the “respectable” institution’s association with his radical politics.

Fundamentally, this is an issue of academic freedom. The death threats against Ciccariello-Maher should have been treated as threats made against the university itself; the university should have thoroughly investigated them and taken appropriate and incremental action. Instead, Drexel was swift in caving to the pressure of far-right media. To many, this came as no surprise. It is becoming increasingly common for radical leftist viewpoints to be quickly stifled, even more so when they are voiced by marginalized individuals. However, institutions and mainstream media still promptly come to the defense of violent right-wing academics in the name of academic freedom. A Princeton University professor was notably forced to cancel her public lectures after receiving death threats in response to her anti-Trump stance. Princeton representatives claimed they were aware of the threats, but did nothing to support her, mentioning that she was on sabbatical. Meanwhile, Robert P. George remains an honoured Princeton professor, despite his advocacy against abortion and same-sex marriage.  These trends are evident across the continent. The University of Toronto backs a transphobic professor, Virginia Tech continues to employ a neo-Nazi, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook continues to support a white supremacist Ph.D alumnus.

Sitting on committees and attending club meetings at McGill makes it apparent to me that some students often need to work much harder for their voices to be recognized, and when they are heard, they are more heavily criticized. At a recent meeting I attended, I noticed that a white student received praise for having an epiphany about the struggles of queer people of colour on campus. These struggles are real, everyday occurrences for multiple students who were part of the discussion, yet the white student was still centred in the subsequent conversation, as if he had unearthed a novel, revelatory idea. This event was one of many that demonstrate how privileged voices are often prioritized in discussions, their ideas offered the most time and space, even if marginalized people have been trying to communicate those same ideas for far longer.  Even in conversations about equity, it seems that those who are most comfortable sharing their opinions freely are those who have been encouraged to do so all their lives.

Reading about these stories made me ask myself questions I never thought I’d have to: Who listens when I speak? Who will defend my freedom to communicate my ideas?

Even within conversations about equity, it seems that those who are most comfortable sharing their opinions freely are those who have been encouraged to do so all their lives.

When a white person’s opinion is prioritized over the lived experiences of a person of colour, marginalized students are taught that their lives are secondary to the voices of white people. Structures of power such as institutional racism, residual colonial hierarchies, and racialized policing all contribute to the (intentional or unintentional) reverence of white voices. The message sent to marginalized students is clear: your experiences don’t matter. White supremacists have their academic freedom reassured, but educators like Stephanie McKellop, a UPenn teaching assistant, are having their classes cancelled for releasing strategies to encourage minority students’ participation (deemed “discriminatory towards white students”). This biased application of academic freedom reproduces power structures, further oppressing marginalized voices.

However, voices on both sides of these debates often falsely equate academic freedom with free speech. It is not ‘free speech’ that allows Ciccariello-Maher to pursue his politics at Drexel, or allows pro-Israel speakers to visit McGill. Whereas academic freedom ensures that academic authorities can pursue their interests free from outside influence, freedom of expression is a state-sanctioned right allowing individuals to speak their mind, as long as they do not incite violence. Free speech does not give anyone the right to a platform.

Guest speakers at McGill and universities around the world have survived student protests and outrage by calling upon free speech, which (according to McGill University ex-provost) must be upheld “no matter how reprehensible the message or messenger.” Yet neither free speech nor academic freedom is violated when a speaker is denied access to McGill, just as it is not violated when a newspaper decides not to print somebody’s pitch. Everyone has the right to speak their mind but it is fallacious to believe that this right is infringed upon if someone doesn’t hand you a megaphone. Free speech does not include the right to an audience.

Free speech does not give anyone the right to a platform.

Again, this false defence seems valid when discussing speakers (white men) with far-right politics. Meanwhile, hate-mongering speakers such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos gain access to dozens of universities, and the way no one speaks up when speakers from marginalized groups are overlooked. The conversation is thus less about free speech, and more about whose speech is protected and why.

When Douglas Farrow and Moira McQueen spoke at a panel at McGill earlier this year, they were both violently transphobic, misgendering students and promoting a diluted form of conversion therapy as an effective treatment for what they abhorrently referred to as “gender dysphoria.” This egregious conversation was not denounced by the administration at McGill, and no support was provided to any students who may have been troubled by the panelists. Protestors at the event were even criticised for stifling free speech and the “free flow of ideas” that academic freedom provides. Ironically, these marginalized students were accused of being intolerant, yet the blatant intolerance of the speakers was accepted as “intellectual inquiry.” Who can stop students, then, from denying a platform for speech they believe does not deserve it? As Ciccariello-Maher argues: “there’s nothing more radically democratic than thousands of students showing up and making it utterly impossible . . . for far-right speakers to enjoy the platform that a university provides.”

Systemic power dynamics benefit privileged voices. Racialized students often feel no desire to speak out on campus politics, knowing, consciously or subconsciously, that their speech will likely remain undefended and undervalued. This fosters a culture in which the voices that are least heard are the ones that have been ignored in the past. Meanwhile, white men often have no problem being loud and vocal about political issues: they are continuously assured that society will value, protect, and accommodate their voice. Without conscious encouragement for the voice of marginalized students, systemic oppression continues to be reproduced.

Free speech is discussed as fundamental to a democratic society, but for these discussions to be of any value, they must include a clarification of whose speech is valued and whose is not. The definition of free speech is twisted and conflated with academic freedom, which leads to the false belief that this freedom is being equally applied in every context. Within a systemically oppressive institution and society, marginalized groups consistently have their speech silenced and disregarded, and the only ones actually benefitting from this weaponized version of free speech are those with the most privilege.


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