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News Jan 11, 2019 1:00 PM EST

SHEPHERD: Academics who say there's no free speech crisis are taking no risks

Academics prefer to dictate what is moral and upright from the safety of their office

SHEPHERD: Academics who say there's no free speech crisis are taking no risks
Lindsay Shepherd Montreal, QC

This article was published more than 1 year ago, information might not be up to date.

Every once in a while I will stumble upon an article written by a university professor that unoriginally recites the talking points of those who claim there is no free speech crisis on campus.

Jasmin Zine, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor who researches Islamophobia, writes that free speech is simply an “alibi” for neofascism, Islamophobia, transphobia, white supremacy, and alt-right bigotry.

“Students do not need a front-row seat to hate in order to challenge or interrogate it”, Zine says. “Hate”, of course, is defined as anything Zine doesn’t like.

David Tabachnick, professor of Political Science at Nipissing University, writes that the idea of there being a free speech crisis on campus is a “misconception” and “exaggeration”, and that “Universities in Ontario, and across Canada, have been and remain bastions for the free expression of ideas.”

And last month, University of Waterloo philosophy professor Shannon Dea wrote a piece entitled “My office door and the campus free speech crisis that never was”, where she argued there most certainly can’t be any free speech crisis on campus because she has lots of pro-LGBTQ and pro-feminism stickers displayed on her office door.

Reflecting upon her door, Dea states “I think that my office door nicely emblematizes just how much free expression is valued on university campuses.”

On the other hand, in his 2018 book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, professor Keith E. Whittington states that while some may still deny that free speech is under attack on university campuses, “that position requires an almost wilful blindness to what has been happening on college campuses big and small.”

Professors aren't putting themselves on the line

Why is it, then, that professors such as Zine, Tabachnick, and Dea are so confident that everything is just fine for everyone on campus?

One explanation is that few of these professors are actually on the ground, organizing guest speaker events that might challenge the campus status quo.

For the entirety of 2018, I was doing on-the-ground work at Wilfrid Laurier University, through my group the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry (LSOI), organizing campus events with speakers who offered interesting perspectives on current issues.

LSOI invited speakers from all across the political spectrum (or who transcended the political spectrum altogether). It was through this on-the-ground work that we proved there is, in fact, a free speech crisis on campus.

My work on the ground at Wilfrid Laurier University

In April 2018, we attempted to host the event “In Conversation: Dr. Ricardo Duchesne and Faith Goldy” at the University of Waterloo, but the university was going to charge us an unjustified $28,500 in security fees, so we had to cancel.

That same month, we attempted to host libertarian speaker David Clement at Wilfrid Laurier University, who was to offer a counter-perspective to Goldy and Duchesne and present on “Why Canada Needs more Immigrants: Debunking the Alt-Right.” Wilfrid Laurier Unviersity barred us from hosting his talk on campus, so we ended up paying to host it at the Kitchener Public Library instead.

In May, we hosted Dr. Frances Widdowson, a professor at Mount Royal University who presented on university indigenization initiatives and whether they threaten open inquiry.

Wilfrid Laurier University charged LSOI $5331.00 in security fees to host this event due to planned protests; and indeed, masked “Marxist-socialist” protestors showed up outside the venue to blare air horns in the ears of attendees, yell at LSOI organizers and guests, and use siren machines to drown out the voices of those trying to respond to the protestors’ yelling.

Some university officials and bodies were so appalled by the idea that Dr. Widdowson could question the integrity and efficacy of indigenization initiatives that they released various statements and organized another event at the same time to discourage participation at Dr. Widdowson’s talk.

The Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) released a statement prior to the Widdowson event stating “The WLUFA executive recognizes that recent actions by the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry are not, in fact, promoting intellectual debate on our university campuses, but seem instead to be manufacturing a free speech ‘crisis’ at Laurier where none exists.”

Apparently, to this group of faculty association executives, a professor giving a speech at another university in Canada on an academic topic does not promote intellectual debate on university campuses.

Additionally, WLU President Deborah MacLatchy sent an email to faculty and staff reiterating WLU’s complete dedication to freedom of expression, but also conveniently mentions that at the exact same time of the Widdowson talk, there is another event people could attend, hosted by WLU’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives, called the “Gathering of Good Minds” pipe ceremony.

MacLatchy also emailed out the link to a crowdfunding campaign for the “Indigenous Knowledge Fund,” which Professor of Indigenous Studies Lianne Leddy said was set up directly in response to LSOI’s Widdowson event.

It is troubling to think that while universities may let an event go ahead, it will not be done without first charging the host group thousands in security fees, then diverting attention away from the original event by creating another one at the exact same time which promotes the opposing view (meaning that attendees will have to choose to attend one event or the other, making it impossible to explore both sides), and pushing a campaign which is raising money for the precise issue that the guest speaker is challenging.

The appropriate disavowals are also required before the event can go ahead: WLU’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives released a statement on the WLU website re-stating their commitment to indigenization and that the Office “does not endorse the May 9 event featuring Frances Widdowson and we are strongly opposed to her views on Indigenization.”[ For a student group, though, let’s be clear, the biggest barrier was the $5,331.00 security bill.

In October, LSOI invited feminist Meghan Murphy to speak on the WLU campus about the conflicts between women’s rights and trans rights. WLU decided to up the ante and charge us $8,055 in security fees this time, not including tax.

Unable to obtain this exorbitant amount of money, we instead paid a lesser amount to host Murphy’s talk at a municipal venue, the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. Murphy’s presentation made for a lively, intellectually stimulating evening.

Academics prefer to dictate what is moral and upright from the safety of their office

When it comes to campus free speech, I have experience organizing events: thinking of compelling speakers, fundraising, coordinating logistics as the university vigorously tries to thwart my efforts, and dealing with the protestors and the university faculty and staff who actively undermine our events.

Can we say the same about these professors who write op-eds about how there is no problem with campus speech, and everything is fine? These professors aren’t on the ground, organizing public lectures with perhaps controversial viewpoints that stimulate public discussion.

They want to stay in their offices and dictate what is and isn’t morally acceptable for other members of the university to be doing, while they themselves don’t push the envelope in any way.

The message students are receiving from their academic superiors is this: if they care about free speech, they are hateful bigots who are trying to cover it up with an “alibi.” And if a student would like to join a club and invite a speaker with unpopular opinions to campus, they will have to be prepared to shell out thousands of dollars in security fees so that other people can protest the event, and they will face the university administration’s attempts to thwart their event.

If the student brings up the injustice of either of these scenarios, their professors will insist there is no free speech crisis; everything is just fine. And so, because they don’t want to be labelled alt-right neofascists for caring about free speech, and because they don’t have thousands of dollars to pay for security fees, students will simply stay quiet and not organize on campus.

Then, in a self-perpetuating cycle, the professors will declare: see? No free speech crisis! No one is being censored or shut down!

Of course, it seems to elude these professors that the real issue is that no one is speaking out or organizing events in the first place.

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