It seems suitable in Freedom to Read week to address the idea of freedom of expression on university campuses. It may seem like a sacrosanct concept, but in reality, there are ongoing challenges to this freedom. These challenges prompt us to consider the right to express oneself against the rights of others, such as protection from hate speech, which the Criminal Code defines as “advocacy or promotion of genocide, the incitement of hatred against an identifiable group, when this incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace, and the wilful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group.”
In a report written for the Human Rights Commission in October 2008, Richard Moon considers both the right to freedom of expression and the regulation of hate speech and advocates that censorship be confined to a very narrow category of extreme expression, stating that “less extreme forms of discriminatory expression, although harmful, cannot simply be censored out of public discourse.” For, as he says:
Each of the established accounts of the value of freedom of expression rests on a recognition that individual autonomy or agency is deeply social in its creation and expression. We become individuals capable of thought and judgment, we flourish as rational and feeling persons, when we join in conversation with others and participate in the life of the community. The social emergence of human agency and individual identity can be expressed in the language of truth/knowledge, individual self-realization/autonomy, or democratic self-government. Each account of the value of freedom of expression represents a particular perspective on, or dimension of, the constitution of individual agency in community life.
He goes on to say, however:
Recognition that individual agency and identity emerge in communicative interaction is crucial to understanding not only the value of expression but also its potential for harm. Our dependence on expression means that words can sometimes be harmful. Expression can cause fear, it can harass, it can mislead, and it can undermine self-esteem. The inclusion of section 1 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an acknowledgement that even basic rights, such as freedom of expression, may be limited when their exercise causes harm to the public interest or the rights of others.
So, ultimately, it is always a balancing act. It remains important, however, to speak out when we feel our freedoms are encroached upon. Some of the more recent incidents involving university campuses are included below.
In January 2009, William Ayers, a distinguished education professor from the University of Illinois, was denied entry to Canada when he attempted to fulfil a speaking engagement at OISE the University of Toronto. Although co-founder of Weather Underground, a radical anti-Vietnam group, he has long since become a well-known author and lecturer. He mostly recently made headlines this past summer when Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin referred to him as a terrorist friend of Barack Obama’s. His invitation to speak on educational reform at U of T garnered a lot of interest, causing the event to be moved to a larger venue. From The Star article:
Jeffrey Kugler, executive director of the Centre for Urban Schooling, is deeply disappointed in the turn of events. For him it’s a question of academic freedom. “It’s kind of ironic the day before Barack Obama is going to become president this is what the Canadian border security has done,” said Kugler. “It seems ridiculous that one university can’t have a professor from another university to come and give a lecture on an important educational topic.”
Let’s consider the conflicting rights here. On one side there is the issue of academic freedom. Denying Ayers entry into Canada prevents him from presenting ideas about education reform that are considered radical by many. You could argue that this prevents students from having access to a full spectrum of knowledge. The Universal Human Rights Declaration says that
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
On the other hand, surely the Canadian border service has the right to turn someone away that they believe will be a threat to the safety of Canadians, no matter how valid you think that belief is. Presumably they are not preventing Canadian citizens from reading Ayers’ works; rather, denying the man himself entry into a country he is not a citizen of. Is this a situation where freedom of expression has been denied or not?
Contentious issues are often accompanied by passionate belief in one view or the opposite. When so-called “radical” views are expressed it can be difficult for the average person to sort out what is freedom of expression and what is a hate crime. This past week at both Carleton University and The University of Ottawa, a group of students called Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) were denied permission to put up a poster advertising “Israeli Apartheid Week.” The University of Ottawa issued the following statement:
A poster from the campus group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights has recently come to the attention of the Communications Office. All posters approved by the Communications Office must promote a campus culture where all members of the community can play a part in a declaration of human rights recognizing the inherent dignity and equal rights of all students. Consequently, we will not place this particular poster on our campus billboards.
The university is clearly interpreting the part of the Human Rights Act that prevents expression that may incite violence against an identifiable group. Is this valid? This website from an Israeli peace activist calls the decision “undemocratic” and a “violation of freedom of expression.” And the website Global Research has also condemned the decision, saying, in part:
Far from defending human rights, the Carleton administration is treating them with contempt. In a memo to students on February 12, the Provost wrote that “all reported incidents of racial or religious intolerance will be investigated vigorously and addressed regardless of the persons or groups involved.” The administration should begin a vigorous investigation of its own behaviour, including its discrimination against students who seek an open debate on a political issue but are being silenced because they happen to disagree with the president’s stand.
Clearly these are not easy issues. Freedom to read, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression are fundamental rights in Canada. They are especially important in places of higher learning such as universities. The challenge, then, is to balance these crucial freedoms with other equally important rights and to continue this dialogue at every occasion.
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