Free Speech Battles Belong on Campus, Not in the Courts

queensThe decision earlier this month by Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario) to forcibly remove a free-speech wall erected by Queen’s Students for Liberty, on the grounds that the wall contained hate speech, has rallied troops to their respective battle lines. A much-needed intellectual conversation has turned into yet another standoff, with each side claiming to be odds-on-favourite to win in the courts.

For the defence, Queen’s Students for Liberty is backed by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which says the removal of the free-speech wall was illegal; for the prosecution, Queen’s provost and vice principal (academic) Alan Harrison upholds the decision to remove the wall, telling reporters that the university would take the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

This rush to lawyer-up serves only to further distance the issue of freedom of speech from the university campus, which is where the debate over its importance should arguably be most productive.

Both Provost Harrison and Principal Daniel Woolf are on record as saying that the free-speech wall contained hate speech. While both men have acknowledged that free speech issues are inherently controversial and that it is “arguable” where the limits to free speech should be drawn, they have categorically insisted that hate speech is demonstrable in this case.

But hate speech is an indictable offence in Canada. Will the university administrators — being apparently fully convinced of their claims — launch an investigation in order to determine who is responsible for the comments in question? Will they pass on the outcome of that investigation to the relevant human rights commission or, if warranted, police force? Queen’s apparent lack of interest in opening such an investigation suggests that the administrators either believe in the selective enforcement of hate speech laws, or do not believe, or cannot substantiate, that this case meets the conditions for hate speech. Yet they pulled the wall down right away. Were they collecting evidence?

Indeed, the removal of the wall — which is property of the student group — has established an interesting precedent. Provost Harrison seems to think this is a minor issue, since the university promised to return the materials. What if, however, the comment(s) deemed offensive on the free speech wall appeared instead on a bumper sticker in the Queen’s University parking lot. Would the university order the car removed from the lot, to be returned to the owner at the discretion of Queen’s administrators?

That some of the language on the Queen’s free speech wall could be considered offensive is not, in my opinion, in dispute. Photos of the wall show at least two comments that could offend on religious and racial grounds, therein contravening the multiple speech and conduct codes that have been cited by the university. But the school must still substantiate the claim of hate speech, since this was the explicit justification of Provost Harrison and Principal Woolf for removing the free speech wall.

Moreover, it seems that there are reasonable grounds to consider (or at least discuss) why offensive content on a temporary free speech wall is summarily purged when similarly offensive language and ideas are permanently accessible through university libraries. Consider, for example, The Satanic Verses, The Mischievous Nigger, Mein Kampf, or any of the 20-plus titles by Susan Sontag, who once called the white race “the cancer of human history.” Since Principal Woolf has made it clear that “demeaning each other based on race, religion or any other affiliation will not be tolerated,” we might also consider what to do with the posters urging us to “eat the rich” that have of late circulated around campus.

There is a difference between something that may be considered offensive and morally objectionable, and something that is against the law. The uncritical and unilateral reaction to the free speech wall on the part of Queen’s administration suggests that we need to work harder as a scholarly community to both recognize and respect this important distinction (especially given several other major scandals relating to free expression that have occurred on campus in recent years). In order to do that, however, we need to resist the temptation to outsource our most controversial and challenging debates to the courts, and keep them on the university campus where they belong.

This article first appeared in the National Post.

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