I May Not Agree With What You Say, But I’ll Fight For Your Right to Say It | By Graeme Archibald

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.

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  • Travis

    It is disappointing to see how everyone is so eager to willfully misunderstand Arun’s actions.

    First, his act, in and of itself, should be protected as a freedom of expression but for some reason, we think that challenging free speech as an idea is not something that one should have the right to do.

    Second, the way this event has been publicized, emphasizes how little free speech there is. He very clearly outlined his reasoning prior to tearing down the ‘wall’ but none of this has been communicated at large. Rather, people have reduced his argument to part of a Twitter exchange. He’s challenging the notion of freedom of speech in our country while simultaneously revealing how it does marginalize people as his story, thoughts, and reasoning are not being shared with due respect. We are being told to condemn his action without any justification as to why he undertook it.

    Third, he wasn’t attempting to express any sort of censorship against what was written on the wall but merely revealing that freedom of speech is nothing more than a platitude in our society. Without so much as a thought, we are condemning his actions with no consideration of the possibility that maybe freedom of speech is not entirely accessible for everyone and that it does marginalize people. Again, if you look at the results of his actions, whose voice are we hearing? It is nothing more than that of the majority, who think that – since they can say whatever they want, whenever they want – freedom of speech exists. How often do we really hear from the marginalized and the oppressed? And if we do, how often do we really consider their opinions, thoughts, and feelings to be valid? It’s worth bearing in mind that maybe we are not allowing Arun’s actions the freedom to speak about this inherent contradiction.

    It’s nearly comical that you point to the law as a precedent for how freedom of speech does not marginalize. How is it that, because minorities are protected under law, they are consequently protected in society? There is still blatant sexism, racism, ageism, classism, and ableism that shouldn’t exist if this was how the law worked. Sadly, it does not work in this way and the manifestation of our values is more important than how they’ve been transcribed.

    He is not saying he has the authority to dictate what is and isn’t said. He’s saying that freedom of speech is a platitude (that is unquestioned, overused, and supported regardless of implications), that it doesn’t exist for all people, and that it serves to marginalize populations by serving the status quo. We are told time and again that freedom of speech should be defended simply because we think we place value on it when, in fact, we place no value on its practice, as demonstrated by the discussion resulting from Arun’s actions.

    Taking action does not discredit activism. The only thing that discredits activism is when we’re told that movements are not deserving of respect, attention, and legitimacy when they do take action. Who are we actually willing to hear speak?

    • First. No, his actions should not be protected under freedom of expression. He has every right to oppose free speech as vocally as he wants. That does not give him the right to infringe upon the freedom of expression of others.
      I have read his justification on Facebook. Perhaps I should have linked it here. He had every right to make his argument, however, free speech does not mean that your opinions must automatically be respected. His use of free speech is not being respected because the vast majority of people find it ridiculous. Being able to say what you want does not mean people have to listen.
      I’m interested to hear how free speech is not accessible to all. Anyone at Carleton, or any other campus, could put up a wall, poster, etc. They have that right. If anything, its Carleton’s pro-life groups that have been restricted in their access to free speech. I’m guessing you’re not too bothered by that.
      People can say whatever they want. Sometimes it is hateful or disgusting. The solution is not to restrict their speech, but to debate them, to discredit them in the open forum provided by free speech. Hell, even laugh at them. Suppressing the right of people to speak their minds never works, no matter the intent.
      There is of course discrimination and bias that permeates our society, free speech has nothing to do with that. Free speech offers marginalized communities the ability to express themselves. Loud mouthed bigots aren’t oppressing them. Ask marginalized communities in countries without free speech what they think. Sure, there is undoubtedly a need for change in our society with regards to more marginalized communities. Saying that free speech is the problem doesn’t really make sense. And please, do not say members of Carleton’s student body are “oppressed” because some disgruntled libertarians put up some paper. That’s just not oppression. It’s just arrogant.

  • ja

    It’s not about whether it’s right or not. Direct action. You have just as much of a right to remove a sign as you do to post it. Both are audacious. We spend too much time talking about free speech and not actually expressing ourselves. We think it’s so liberal to talk about the issue but simply talking about it shows its actual failure to make speech free. When we are speaking about speech we are not speaking.

  • jia

    You chose to respond to their actions by quoting the charter of rights?

    I think that response alone shows that Smith’s actions and concept are simply lost on you.

    Smith is talking about ethics and you’re talking about law, existing law. You’ve missed the boat and thus your defense of free speech is basically deflected since you didn’t really address any relevant points.

    I’m not saying anything about free speech, I’m saying this article is a poor response and defense.

  • spry

    if someone is against gay marriage because of a moral objection based on religion or object for any reason, they should have the right to that opinion /believe without facing punishment or discrimination for their beliefs/opinion. Likewise they don’t have the right to mistreat, discriminate or interfere with someone who believes gay marriage is acceptable. Someone who is for gay marriage that believes that the people who object should be fired, not allowed to/be __________(fill in the blank) or restricted in anyway because of that belief, then they should have those same rules apply to them. If they object to the marriage of any consenting adults they should be fired, not allowed to, or restricted in the same way someone who is against gay marriage is subjected to. A father should have the right to marry his adult son, a brother should have the right to marry his own brother. A father should have the right to marry his daughter, a sister and her sister, a mother and her son. To restrict or object to incest based on the health risks of the offspring is not valid unless those same objections are placed on unrelated couples when there is a known health risk to having children. When someone loses their right to employment or any restriction is placed upon them because they have a religious or morale objection to gay marriage then how does anyone have a right to object to any consenting adults getting married. What is the argument that justifies denying blood relatives from marriage? If you object to that should you then also be fired? How can anyone justify restricting marriage to two people? What gives anyone the right to deny a woman to have three male husbands and five additional married partners and of which two are her adult age children. How do you justify allowing anyone or any law that restricts the behavior of consenting adults if those actions do not present a danger to oneself, another person or the environment in general? When someone ‘s right to object or disagree with another persons opinion/belief is subject retribution when the person holding that believe does not discriminate against those who’s behavior is different then no one is allowed to object to anything. “I may not agree with what you believe, but I will defend your right to believe it”