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Lost in Translation: Understanding the campus free expression debate

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Image: Kevin Metcalf

What's happening on Canadian university campuses? It is a familiar question to anyone that's read any of the myriad of editorials, columns and think pieces on the state of campus free speech today. A list of relevant incidents should be equally familiar -- student protestors shut down a talk by pulling a fire alarm; a controversial speaker pre-emptively cancels their campus appearance due to security concerns; a University of Toronto psychology professor, purportedly against political correctness, sparks a national debate on the boundaries between free speech and discrimination.

The dominant story goes something like this: free expression as a principle is on the decline on Canadian campuses today. Taking its place is a culture of political correctness, safe spaces and students that prioritize other principles, like social justice and community standards of tolerance, over unfettered speech.

Clear battle-lines have been drawn, and where you stand seems to come down to whether you think this new trend is objectionable or not. If you do, you are a conservative and fall somewhere on the fascist spectrum. If you don't, you are a liberal snowflake whose progressive over-sensitivities can't handle the rigours of open debate.

It's less a debate than it is a shouting match.

Consistently absent from the conversation seems to be meaningful engagement between opposing views, as well as a more nuanced, specific discussion of what exactly we mean when we talk about free speech on campus. What do safe spaces and open debate entail, and are they mutually exclusive? At what point are effective criticism and counter-protest considered suppression of speech? How should we respond to the potentially harmful downstream effects of controversial speakers on campus, or when "alt-right" groups take up free speech as a catch-all defense for spreading hatred and inciting violence? These questions demand more than just a line in the sand between so-called pro- and anti-free speech camps.

It's those gaps in the debate that prompted CJFE to start our research project on campus free expression. To better understand the divergent views on the state of campus free expression, and to provide a platform to voices that have been thus far neglected, the first part of our project has been largely a listening exercise.

Over the past three months, we have interviewed student group representatives, student union leaders, student journalists and off-campus stakeholders for their perspectives on recent flashpoint events, as well as how they perceive the climate of free expression on campus today. We've tried to gain a picture of what's happening on campuses, according to the students that are there right now.

The project is ongoing. Based on what we've heard so far, however, the wealth of news and editorial content on the state of campus free speech today hasn't captured the full story.

So, what is happening on Canadian university campuses?

It depends who you ask. On the one hand, it's easy to see why the notion that free speech is under threat on campuses has gained traction. There's no lack of high profile incidents, particularly on U.S. campuses this past year, to point to as easily accessible evidence. Events at Middlebury College and UC Berkeley, or University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson's arguments allegedly against political correctness, also match and validate the experience of students that feel like they’re walking on eggshells on campuses where terms like “micro-aggressions” and “lived experiences” are the new status quo.

Moreover, the argument on that side of the fence is appealingly simple. To hear Nick Pateras and Matthew Zaffino, two Queen's University alumni petitioning their alma mater to adopt a hard line on protecting free speech, or Michael Kennedy, a representative of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms organization, describe it, the issue seems black and white. Speech should be protected up until the point that it violates the law. In Canada, that's up until the point of hate speech or defamatory libel. Safe spaces, de-platforming speakers and other such measures are wrongheaded in their attempts to create a more restrictive framework. However well-intentioned they may be, these new community standards coddle young adult minds into objecting to anything and everything they find offensive, and set a dangerous precedent -- if X can be shut down today, who's to say Y won't be shut down tomorrow? The best response to hateful speech is not suppression, but counter-speech -- to allow hateful views to be aired and exposed as wrong through the process of open debate.

That's one perspective. But speak to Cassandra Williams, a trans University of Toronto student and member of the trans, non-binary and intersex community organization INTACT, or Matthias Memmel and Chim Alao, the incoming President and Vice-President of Equity of the University of Toronto Student Union, and the debate shifts from black and white into the shades of grey inherent to any complex social issue. The case for open debate on a university campus is well and good, but does it adequately account for the situation of marginalized groups, who haven't had the same access to a microphone or to publication space as others? Or if engaging in the debate means engaging with hateful language that targets one's racial or gender identity, or being subject to vicious online harassment? Is it even accurate to frame, say, a push for trans and non-binary human rights as an attack on free speech?

These are concerns that free speech absolutists can ostensibly gloss over. For individuals in the crosshairs of reprehensible, bigoted ideas that can and do surface on campus, they are not so easily ignored.

The case of Professor Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto is instructive in understanding these divergent narratives. In September 2016, Peterson released a series of online lecture videos, entitled "Professor against political correctness," challenging Bill C-16, which amends the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission's provisions on gender identity discrimination. He further claimed that there is not enough evidence to support the existence of a gender spectrum, despite broad scientific support for the concept, and that he would refuse to use gender-neutral pronouns in his classroom. Peterson has maintained that the purpose of the videos was to defend freedom of speech.

While Peterson has never been censored, he has faced severe backlash to his views from the University of Toronto community as well as from the university itself. The University of Toronto Students Union (UTSU) and several University of Toronto professors have publically condemned Peterson's comments as inaccurate and discriminatory against trans and non-binary students and faculty members. In response to Peterson's videos, Williams and INTACT organized a campus teach-in and rally in October 2016 to provide basic information on trans and non-binary individuals and to allow affected individuals to share their experiences.

Parallel to this widespread opposition, Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) emerged -- a University of Toronto student group formed to advocate for Peterson's right to free expression, as well as for free speech and open debate on campus in general. As Simon Capobianco, a current SSFS member, articulated it, the group's main goal is to recover space for expression and debate for everyone on campus, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. It sets itself in opposition to the perceived trend of hostility towards free speech on campuses, particularly from social justice activism circles. While recognized by the University of Toronto, the group has not been recognized by the UTSU due to transphobic and discriminatory posts on their now-private Facebook page.

SSFS's seminal event was a campus rally in support of free speech, held a week after the INTACT rally and teach-in. Peterson spoke at the rally, as well as Lauren Southern, a former commentator for right-wing media outlet Rebel Media. Southern had previously disrupted the trans teach-in by posing as a trans individual. During the rally, counter-protestors from INTACT and the trans and non-binary community played noise music through speakers. The rally ended with police intervention, after altercations between Southern and some attendees, as well as other incidents of assault. Peterson has since spoken at other universities, and has been met with both supporters and counter-protestors to varying degrees.

Even setting aside conflictual political stances -- although technically a non-partisan group, SSFS has attracted the support of predominantly right-wing figures, and Capobianco acknowledged that most SSFS members lean conservative -- there is a wedge between these two camps that surpasses disagreement over the limits of acceptable speech. They also operate on fundamentally different understandings of what it means to be silenced.

For Peterson's supporters, the professor is the newest target of a largely left-leaning campaign to stamp out unpopular or offensive ideas on campus. Opposing groups threaten to silence him because they don't agree with what he says, and that is wrong. Further, he speaks to the experience of some students that feel shut out of mainstream campus discourse, or otherwise voluntarily disengage for fear of saying the wrong thing.

For many of Peterson's critics, on the other hand, the controversy isn't even an issue of free speech. Rather, it's an issue of accessibility to a learning environment free from harassment and discrimination, as Peterson's remarks subject trans students to. As Williams explained it to us, the so-called "political correctness" that Peterson decries is not an infringement of free expression, but rather a standard of treating others with dignity, and that is a reasonable community standard to uphold.

Moreover, Peterson has never been prevented from airing his views -- in fact, he has only expanded his platform in the wake of last fall's controversy. Most instances of criticism and protest cited as evidence of the campaign to shut down Peterson -- and of the larger trend of free speech under attack -- can reasonably be classified as effective counter-speech.

Meanwhile, following Peterson's initial remarks and the October 2016 rally, several trans individuals on campus were subject to continuous online harassment. In one instance, a targeted student was forced into temporary housing because their home address was compromised online. Similarly, after engaging in a public debate with Peterson on Bill C-16, University of British Columbia professor Mary Bryson received a slew of violent threats and hate mail. Brenda Cossman, a University of Toronto law professor who debated Peterson in November 2016, has likewise received hate mail and physical threats.

Further confounding the issue is the way in which it has been covered by off-campus media outlets. The Varsity, a University of Toronto student newspaper, broke the story on Peterson's video series, and per their mandate as a local student newspaper, the coverage included perspectives from students and student groups. However, as Tom Yun and Rachel Chen, The Varsity's online editor and managing editor, explained to us, mainstream media outlets have centred Peterson in their coverage. The story as they tell it is about a controversial professor's struggle against a politically correct university institution -- conspicuously absent are the perspectives of those affected by his actions.

Peterson is a drop in the ocean of recent skirmishes on campus free speech, but he serves to illustrate that the debate is far muddier and more multifaceted than the loudest voices can make it seem.

It is, however, still a debate, and one that's not going to be solved by shutting down arguments that diverge from agreed-upon norms, or by simply saying free speech is free speech is free speech. There are missing pieces on both sides of the coin: it's unclear, for example, what circumstances condone disruptive protest, or where to draw the line between speech that is offensive but permissible and speech that is discriminatory. Even if consensus is impossible, confronting these more slippery questions requires meaningful engagement between opposing actors.

Through our ongoing survey of students and groups on campus, CJFE hopes to provide a platform for that kind of engagement.

Jacqueline Houston is a student at McGill University, editor at The McGill Tribune, and was CJFE's Communications and Research Assistant.

Image: Kevin Metcalf

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