Freedom of speech on campus

The University of Toronto’s recent decision not to allow a white nationalist group to hold some kinds of a meeting/rally on campus (details here) would be largely uneventful, except for the fact that the new leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer, made a rather incautious commitment to have the federal government intervene in various ways to protect freedom of speech on university campuses in Canada. I did an interview with CBC’s The 180 on this a while back (here). At the time, I mainly wanted to observe that Scheer got this idea from one of Donald Trump’s tweets, which is probably not the best source of policy ideas. I also found it absurd that Scheer saw the primary threat to free speech on campus coming from undergraduate students, as opposed to academic administrators. This on the heels of l’affaire Potter, and the fact that universities in Canada are increasingly hiring faculty into non-tenure track positions, and in the case of McGill, disposing of them when they say something unpopular. It made me think Scheer is paying too much attention to what is going on in the United States, and not enough to issues arising in Canada.

In any case, now that Scheer has made this commitment, and having reiterated it post-victory, he is now in the unfortunate position of having to take a stand on everything that happens on university campuses in Canada. So when University of Toronto decides that white nationalists can’t hold a rally on campus, journalists call him up and say “are you going to deny all federal funding to UofT?”, to which he then has to say “of course not,” which then leads the journalists to say “why not? aren’t they restricting free speech?” This leads me to think that this issue will not be going away anytime soon. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important for universities (and, by extension, us academics) to be able to explain clearly the difference between “freedom of speech,” which is a constitutional principle that constrains the government, from “academic freedom,” which is an institutional commitment that governs universities. They are not the same, although they bear certain similarities to one another. All the evidence suggests, however, that Scheer (along with many others) does not understand the difference.

In the service of clarifying these ideals, I think we should turn to some work that Jacob Levy (aka “Canada’s smartest libertarian”) has done on this topic. It’s a bit long, but I highly recommend this transcript of a talk he gave, entitled “Safe Spaces, Academic Freedom, and the University as a Complex Association.” Here’s a small sample:

Under general principles of freedom of speech, under the rules of the first amendment as they govern the rules of the rest of society which I think are generally very good understandings of what the value of the freedom of speech is. Under such rules, you are allowed to lie. It’s a very clearly established norm of the first amendment. While certain kinds of commercial fraud aren’t allowable (you’re not allowed to put up a sign you’re selling sugar and sneak cocaine into it). In general, you’re allowed to lie and your ability to lie is protected by the first amendment. For example, you are allowed to tell the following particular kind of lie: you’re allowed to publish a book that has your name on the cover that you did not write… On a university campus, if you submit written work in one of your classes that you paid someone else to write for you and you put your name on it, you get expelled. On a university campus, if I publish a piece of research that I didn’t write and I paid someone else to write and I put my name on it, I get fired. And appropriately so. That kind of misrepresentation which is fair game as a matter of freedom of speech is not fair game in terms of the structure of community of inquiry and discourse that is part of a college or university. It is one of the very worst offenses in a college or university.

Anyone wanting to get immersed in the debates over free speech on campus, (e.g. de-platforming, etc.) should read the thing through to the end. In particular, he has some interesting things to say about student clubs, and the role that they play in the university. This is actually the heart of the issue in the United States, because most of the speakers being invited that are causing significant controversy are being invited, not by faculty, but rather the students, many of whom are inviting them precisely to generate a backlash. So there is an important question that arises about what the university’s policy should be toward student-sponsored speakers.

Also, Jacob should write a proper version of the argument and publish it in the Walrus or something.

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