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Push for free speech charter on Alberta campuses will privilege radical right

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Jason Kenney, 22, tells CNN why women at the University of San Francisco have no right to speak freely on campus in favour of their reproductive rights (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube).

"Free speech in universities" is nowadays a rallying cry for the snowflakes of the extremist right, who can dish it out but can't take it.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that pushing post-secondary institutions to enforce the Chicago Statement on Free Expression, an ingenious manifesto that uses "free speech" as code for the right of the privileged and powerful to shout down everyone else, is the policy of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government.

Yesterday, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides issued a press release praising the board of northern Alberta's Keyano College for being the first Alberta post-secondary institution to adopt the so-called "Chicago Principles."

"It is important that our post-secondary institutions remain bastions of free thinking and dialogue, where all members are able to engage in true discovery and learning," Nicolaides said piously.

At least Nicolaides, an expert in conflict resolution according to his potted biography on the government's website, keeps talking about implementing the manifesto "collegially," rather than threatening the funding of institutions that won't knuckle under as Ontario Premier Doug Ford's officials have been doing.

The manifesto was adopted by the University of Chicago in 2014 to push back against popular opposition to racist speakers on campus, university prohibitions of racist, sexist and homophobic attacks on students, and demands to change the names of buildings and remove statues celebrating historic figures known for their racism or cruelty.

To implement the policy, the university hired the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that journalist and Yale political science lecturer Jim Sleeper says "purports to protect 'free speech' on college campuses, but expends more energy blaming -- and chilling -- 'politically correct' activists and administrators."

The language of the Chicago Statement, calling for "free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation," strives to be as inspiring as that of the United States Constitution. Like the U.S. Constitution, which was written to ensure human slavery would be an enduring institution, it is deceptive, intended to enshrine bullying by privileging certain ideas and groups and marginalizing others.

The statement and its supporters make a straw man of safe spaces where marginalized student groups can gather free from harassment by people who dislike or disagree with them. But the goal is to create a safe space for only one set of ideas, the economic nostrums and social conservative rigidities of the increasingly radicalized North American right.

In Alberta, you can count on it, the main result of adoption by post-secondary institutions of this charter of right-wing privilege will be to open university campuses wide to anti-women's rights extremists and advocates of Trump-style racism. Given Premier Kenney's history, it's hard to believe that's not the idea.

When students use their free speech rights to push back, naturally, they will be assailed as snowflakes and bullies, and their activities will be criminalized.

You can count on it as well that this "free speech" principle will also be extended by the Kenney government to allowing anti-abortion radicals to harass and threaten users and workers on the steps of women's health clinics.

One doesn't have to be a particularly alert reader to realize why this idea would appeal to a person like Premier Kenney.

Kenney's activities as an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco in the late 1980s are well known. As a 22-year-old, he set out to drive women who dared to speak up for their reproductive rights from the campus of the Roman Catholic Church-run institution, garnering news coverage from CNN.

Perhaps, as some have quipped, he really was too conservative for the Catholic Church. At any rate, the coolly intellectual Jesuits who ran the university were unimpressed by Kenney's arguments, and his efforts to get church leaders to say the institution couldn't call itself a Catholic university went nowhere. Not long after, he dropped out and returned to Canada.

Equally well known is Kenney's decree as federal immigration minister in 2009 banning George Galloway from Canada on the spurious grounds the left-wing British parliamentarian was a threat to national security. The problem, of course, was that Kenney didn't agree with Galloway's opinions about the rights of the Palestinian people.

Now Kenney is the premier of Alberta, so committed to free speech he plans to launch a multi-million-dollar "war room" to harass and silence anyone who dares to criticize Alberta's fossil fuel industry.

And we are being asked to believe yesterday's chipper news release by the minister of advanced education signals a meaningful effort to protect free speech on the province's campuses? Seriously?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Screenshot/YouTube

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