Writing in iPolitics, Peter Milliken and Patrick Luciani examine the issues that will be debated Thursday evening at the next Great Canadian Debate. While campuses are supposed to be places that protect the free exchange of ideas, many feel the political correctness has shut out certain opinions. Is free speech on campus an endangered species? That’s what the National Post’s Barbara Kay and York University’s Daniel Drache will be debating on March 27 at 7 pm at the Canadian War Museum.
Peter Milliken and Patrick Luciani, March 25, 2014
Universities are supposed to be places where ideas, regardless of how radical or controversial, are freely debated without fear of censorship or intimidation. But is that perception of our universities nothing more than an illusion? Has political correctness endangered free speech on Canadian campuses? This issue will be debated on March 27 at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, by Professor Daniel Drache of York University, who will argue against the resolution, while National Post columnist Barbara Kay will argue for the resolution.
Canadians can draw on plenty of headline-grabbing examples from recent years that would seem to back up the resolution. In 2010, controversial American pundit Ann Coulter was prevented from speaking at the University of Ottawa after demonstrations outside the event venue had grown threatening. Before Coulter even arrived in Ottawa, the university’s then provost, François Houle, had sent her a pre-emptive warning letter about the limits of free speech in Canadian law.
Also in 2010, journalist Christie Blatchford was prevented from speaking at the University of Waterloo – the topic was to have been her book about the aboriginal land dispute at Caledonia – when a group of protesters occupied the stage.
In 2002, Benjamin Netanyahu, then former (and now current) Prime Minister of Israel was prevented from speaking at Concordia University when protesters and police clashed, resulting in shattered windows, and in 2004, Ehud Barak, another former Israeli prime minister, was prevented from speaking at Concordia. Security concerns were also cited here.
And it isn’t just the famous whose ideas get stifled on campus. Student groups that challenge what many see as a left-wing, anti-Israel and feminist orthodoxy at many Canadian universities are often marginalized. Men’s issues events, anti-abortion groups or pro-Zionist campaigns seem to have difficulty attaining the same status as more socially progressive campus causes, and their members often report feeling unsafe and unwelcome in the university environment.
Still, one could argue that these examples are isolated, hot-button news stories that grab an undue amount of attention. Many other controversial speakers are allowed a campus voice, in spite of protests and disapproval. Coulter, during the same tour in which she was prevented from speaking in Ottawa, was free to speak at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Calgary. And Margaret Somerville, though controversial for her conservative views on same-sex marriage, among other things, is a respected faculty member at McGill University and has received numerous honorary degrees from campuses across the country, often in the face of strong objections and protests.
Campus pro-life groups have had their right to free expression upheld at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. And where there has been restriction, there is improvement: The Carleton University Students’ Association, a group that in 2008 famously refused to fundraise for cystic fibrosis research on the grounds the disease primarily affects white males, introduced a motion in 2012 to remove a list of banned organizations and to allow for a distinction between groups whose mandate is to “perpetuate hate” and those who merely hurt others’ feelings.
Finally, one’s feelings about campus debate likely reflect one’s own politics. Many on the left see university campuses as a safe place to foster ideas outside a more conservative mainstream, dominated by corporations, the media and political parties. They would argue that speech at university more free and independent than elsewhere in the social sphere, in part because tenure protects professors from pressure by moneyed interests or weak-kneed administrators. And academia is not monolithic, one can find all kinds of political views out there, if you look beyond a handful of liberal arts universities.
Which side is right? Decide for yourself as the debate, part of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Great Canadian Debates series, unfolds at the Canadian War Museum in the Barney Danson Theatre March 27 at 7pm.
Peter Milliken is former Speaker of the House of Commons and moderator for the 2013-14 season of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Great Canadian Debates series. Patrick Luciani is Senior Resident at Massey College and an organizer of the Great Canadian Debates.