Protect Free Speech on Canadian University Campuses
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On April 19, 2017, the National Post reported the then Conservative Party leadership candidate Andrew Scheer saying that universities should lose federal funding if they do not protect free speech on campus. This proposal was a result of several incidents, including the cancellation of a pro-life event at Wilfrid Laurier University, the controversy surrounding UofT professor Jordan Peterson's refusal to use gender pronouns, Dr. Peterson's event being disrupted at McMaster University, and several instances of clubs being banned (or even prevented from being created) for the sole reason of holding political views that differed from those of the administration or the student union.
Mr. Scheer condemned the shutting out of dissent on many issues and proposed that the protection of free speech become an integral criterion on public post-secondary institutions’ grant applications to federal agencies. He claimed that groups must be given the right to proclaim their controversial views on either side of the spectrum as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others, and it was the duty of the universities to prevent the infringement of that right. In another interview, he said, “I think universities should be a safe space for debate, for conversations, not just hug zones or things like that. It is important for students to feel safe on campus, but it is also important that their views are challenged…that’s what universities were created for.”
It was for this reason that many libertarians and social conservatives turned up to vote for this man, helping him to win the leadership of the Conservative Party, despite not being the favourite.
Perhaps they had forgotten that this was politics, where no promise is set in stone.
On August 18, 2017, the National Post reported that Mr. Scheer now believes that publicly funded universities reserve the right to decide who gets a platform. This quote came after the University of Toronto did not allow an event by the Canadian Nationalist Party to take place on campus and the cancellation of a free speech event featuring Jordan Peterson and Gad Saad at Ryerson University. When asked whether he would implement his policy in such a situation, Mr. Scheer said, “I look at my policy as a positive way to incentivize universities to put in a plan or to have a thought about how they can make sure that, for example, events that have already been sanctioned, that have already been given the green light, don’t get shut down by small groups of radical protestors.” When asked whether groups that have extreme views deserve to have the right to freedom of speech and expression, he refused to give a clear answer.
It seems to me that Mr. Scheer does not seem to have understood the problem that university students face on campus. With far-left, politically correct student unions being the ones who hand out approvals for events, it is rare that such events even get the ‘green light’ in the first place. And if such events were given the green light, it is extremely easy for the union or the administration to cancel the event at a later date, citing reasons such as safety as an excuse to avoid the backlash that would result from the event. Take for example the event that was supposed to be conducted at Ryerson University. The event was all set to be conducted on August 22nd, when, according to the organizer, Ryerson started getting calls from Antifa and other similar organizations demanding that the events be shut down. In the end, the university succumbed to the demands of the real fascists and cancelled the event. Furthermore, if universities reserve the right to decide who gets a platform on their campuses, clubs with differing points of view cannot be formed. Take for example, the UTM Students for Life, a pro-life group on the University of Toronto Mississauga campus, who were not given club status and were instead labelled a hate group. The Canadian Federation of Students actually has a law that allows for member student unions to prevent or strip club status from pro-life clubs. Isn’t this what Mr. Scheer means by being able to hold controversial views as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others? Isn’t that the stifling of free speech and expression?
This is not about defending incidents like Charlottesville. I think Mr. Scheer made it clear in his initial statement that groups that infringe on others’ rights will not be protected under this policy, and neo-Nazis who demand the extinction of minorities like blacks and Jews fall under that category. Nonetheless, the freedom of speech and expression exists to protect speech that one disagrees with, especially speech that is considered pernicious by the majority of the country, as long as it is done in a peaceful and respectful manner.
If this continues, and Mr. Scheer sits watching on the sidelines, waiting for a ‘green-lighted’ event to be cancelled, the culture of debate and discussion that he claims to value will have diminished. University administrators and student unions will be emboldened by his words that universities have the right to allow or disallow speakers on campus, and will start actively restricting more events organized by those that hold dissenting views. And Mr. Scheer’s libertarian and social conservative base, the ones who believed his promise to uphold the right to free speech and voted for him, will end up getting disillusioned and discouraged when their views end up being censored and even vilified.
We believed in you, Andrew Scheer, and you let us down. But it is not too late. We still have hope, and if you want us to believe that you are the one to beat Trudeau in 2019, show us that you are that man by returning to your promise of protecting free speech at all costs.
We still love you.
But right now, we are disappointed in you.
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