The academic world vs. free speech

Rushdie was pointing out freedom of expression is a two-way street, paving the way for the pros and cons on certain issues to be heard with equal respect. Freedom of expression is not a privilege afforded only to those who have chosen the road of “political correctness,” a direction now turning into ruts at Canadian universities with students adopting “it’s my way or no way” attitude.

“What is the freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

— Author Salman Rushdie

Rushdie was pointing out freedom of expression is a two-way street, paving the way for the pros and cons on certain issues to be heard with equal respect.

Freedom of expression is not a privilege afforded only to those who have chosen the road of “political correctness,” a direction now turning into ruts at Canadian universities with students adopting “it’s my way or no way” attitude.

The movement is eroding the foundations of one of this country’s most guarded rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — and cultivating intolerance among a group of intelligent young people who have turned to hypocrisy.

Canadian universities were recently given a failing grade by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom in its 2012 Campus Freedom Index.

The centre concluded that Canadian universities are the birthplace of political correctness, and the trend on most Canadian campuses has eroded free speech.

Have university students lost their sense of direction? At one time, they were applauded as a future generation of intellects who would uphold democracy without bias. But incidents in recent years on the campuses demonstrates intolerance is sneaking up like mould.

Last year, according to an Internet account, a gay rights activist tore down what is called a “freedom speech wall” at Ottawa’s Carlton University — a huge, blank poster where one could express their feelings in writing.

Student Arun Smith, during Carlton’s Gay Pride Week, found remarks offensive such as “queers are awesome,” and “gay is OK.”

The gay rights activist flipped out and tore the wall down, calling the remarks homophobic and provocative even though they represented his views. Figure that one out.

The closest thing that came to be construed as anti-gay was a statement “traditional marriage is awesome.”

Students at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., attempted to put up a free-speech wall last week, only to have campus security take it down.

But the president and lawyer for the justice centre said the action was illegal.

“The contract between tuition-paying students and their university gives students the legal right to express their views on campus, whether individually or as a club,” said John Carpay in a Yahoo News report. “As long as opinions are expressed in a peaceful manner, neither Queen’s University nor the student union has any right to censor speech based on its content, as has been done here.”

Meanwhile, students at Toronto’s York University are busy trying to implement a boycott of all things related to Israel. The school’s Federation of Students voted to join a national movement to divest themselves of interest in Israeli companies and refuse exchanges with Israeli academics. The initiative has already been endorsed by students at Concordia University, the University of Regina and the University of Toronto.

In 2008 the students’ federation at York moved to ban all anti-abortion students clubs. And the University of Windsor has dropped its convocation prayer after protests from student atheists.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms surveyed 35 Canadian universities and student unions. It awarded only three “A” grades, compared with 28 “Fs” to 12 universities and 26 student unions for actions such as cancelling campus appearances of controversial speakers, trying to ban pro-life groups and banning the expression “Israeli apartheid.”

Pro-life clubs have been a major target. Ten student unions denied official certification of these clubs. Carpay asks what other groups are next whose views don’t “jibe with prevailing opinions?”

He also raises the question why Canadians are obliged to fund learning institutions accommodating students violating the right to freedom of speech?

“It’s fundamentally dishonest for the university to go to the government … and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars on the pretext that they are a centre for free inquiry and then receive the money and turn around and censor unpopular opinions.”

Salman Rushdie makes the same point.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.