The following is an opinion piece and is solely the view of the author. It does not represent the views of the Wanderer Online.
Last week, a so-called ‘free speech wall’ was set up at Ottawa’s Carleton University. The wall was put up by Carleton’s libertarian ‘Students for Liberty’ group, with the intent of providing an open forum for Carleton students to express themselves, without restriction. Within less than 24 hours, seventh-year human rights student Arun Smith had forcibly removed the wall, citing the wall’s very existence as an act of hatred towards the LGBTQ community. Smith further claimed that free speech is an “illusory concept” and that not all free speech or free expression is valid, as shown in the Twitter exchange below:
Mr. Smith further claimed that free speech is dangerous to minorities, as it allows those in power to marginalize them. However, I would like to point out Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which lists the fundamental freedoms that Canadians have. Listed under these Charter rights, quite clearly, is the following:
- (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
- (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication
There is no legal support for Mr. Smith’s actions. Even if hate speech laws were considered, the wall was not in the wrong — reports indicate that the most inflammatory statements were “abortion is murder”, and “traditional marriage is awesome”, which hardly constitute hate speech. Of course, it is clear that Mr. Smith did not act in accordance with human rights law. Rather, it was an action of “forceful resistance” against an oppressive wall of paper. It is additionally rather disturbing that Mr. Smith feels that he is justified in deciding what speech is acceptable in today’s discourse.
I strongly believe in the freedom of speech. I also strongly believe in marriage equality, and I am pro-choice. While I may vehemently disagree with the statements “abortion is murder” or “traditional marriage is awesome”, I absolutely believe in the right of those individuals to express those opinions without hinderance. Free speech is fundamental in liberal democracies, and that right is not subject to the approval of a Carleton human rights student, no matter what his motivations may be. I am particularly disturbed that this event occured on a university campus, as our post-secondary institutions are supposed to be places where ideas can be exchanged freely, where the discourse is open and unrestrictive. The act of silencing certain parts of that discourse in order to appease one person’s views are unacceptable. There always will be limits to free speech – the usual examples of yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre and hate speech come to mind – however, the determination of that lies with the courts. We must not let hate speech simply become interpreted as “speech that offends my personal views”.
According to the right-leaning Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom, it is not just Carleton that has struggles with free speech issues. The University of Alberta received “C” and “D” grades in their 2012 Campus Freedom Index, receiving D grades in the category of “University actions and practices” as well as “students’ union policies and principles”. Although this think tank does have a libertarian and conservative leaning, that should not discredit their assessments. After all, it is rather difficult to find a think tank that does not have a bias.
Mr. Smith has accomplished little, apart from receiving condemnation from the Carleton University Students’ Association, and criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. If anything, he has only harmed his own campaign of anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia, by completely discrediting himself as an activist on campus. People like Mr. Smith and his supporters must remember that there is no right to not be offended, and that attempting to restrict certain speech that they disagree with makes them just as bigoted as those they oppose.
Graeme Archibald is a fourth-year Political Science Honors student at the University of Alberta.
Creative Commons photograph courtesy of dogwelder on Flickr.