We need a free speech revolution

What we really need is a free speech revolution—a movement where everyone feels free to express their opinions without fear of mobbing and shaming. The bad ideas will wither and the good ideas will flourish, and we will all be richer for participating in the conversations that happen along the way.


In a 2018 book called Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability, Canadian writer John Semley offers what he describes as:

A somewhat smugly contrarian premise: that hating is good. If we’re constantly leaned on by the gentle pressure to nod and smile and agree upon the ever-expanding constellations of cultural consumption and appreciation, then disagreeability, scowling, and shaking one’s head feels urgent, and even necessary.

A book in praise of “hate” is a tough sell, but the message quoted above isn’t wrong. As anyone on social media can attest, we’re constantly deluged by politically correct nonsense that cries out for debunking. If, say, calling out fashionable gibberish about biological sex being a mere “construct” makes you a “hater,” then bring on the hate.

Now, Semley has penned a Walrus essay called “Are University Campuses Where Free Speech Goes to Die?” In it, he claims that the free speech crisis on university campuses “may be tempest-in-teapot stuff” but it has the potential to "shape the broader intellectual, social, and political discourse, for better and worse."

Therefore, Semley takes us on a brief tour through the history of free speech on campus. He discusses Kant (pointing out that he was a misogynist and racist, of course), the Enlightenment, Vietnam, Mario Savio, Berkeley and the free speech movement, the culture wars 1.0, and he finally brings us to the modern day where he paints a deliberately crude picture of the current censorship crisis as a battle between safe spacers and free speechers:

In one corner are the queer, transgender, Indigenous, black-clad progressives, pulling fire alarms to break up controversial campus activities and labelling anyone with whom they disagree a neo-Nazi. In the other are white, male, heterosexual conservatives, railing against the political correctness and social-justice warriors (sjws), barely able to eke out their favourite John Stuart Mill quote about liberty and freedom before they’re drowned out by, well, the wail of a fire alarm.

Semley then goes on to offer obligatory lazy drive-bys on Lindsay Shepherd and Dr. Jordan Peterson, and tells us that “freedom of speech does not excuse crummy job performance”—the (completely unsupported) implication being that these two mavericks aren’t just wrong, but also incompetent. In an envy-soaked rant published elsewhere, Semley has described Peterson (whose books actually sell) as “a sallow man, slumped at a desk in his Native American-inspired attic longhouse, angrily Googling ‘bikini’ first thing in the morning.” Semley also has used middle-school taunts such as “stupidfest” to describe Shepherd. It’s one thing to write about hated. It’s another thing to be addled by it.

He connects the Peterson and Shepherd cases to recent policies that Ontario Premier Doug Ford and US President Donald Trump have enacted in order to protect free speech on campus. (Ford’s legislation states that Ontario universities must “implement and comply with a free speech policy that meets a minimum standard prescribed by the government.”) Semley warns that "many students roused by the intoxicating energy of campus politics are drawn to this all-perspectives-are-valid view of the university." For some reason, Semley doesn't spend much time focusing on how Shepherd and Peterson both came perilously close to losing everything for presenting and expressing unpopular points of view. I wonder why.

Semley leans heavily on recent work from a University of Waterloo philosophy professor named Shannon Dea, who tells him, “There’s a cultural perception that the university in particular has a mission to foster freedom of expression … I think that this is based on a partial understanding.” Semley spends a great deal of space trying to establish  the idea that academic freedom should be separated from the principle of freedom of expression. Semley cites the recent work of Professor Dea:

Dea compares teaching on campus to working at a fast-food joint. If you’re hired to work at a Wendy’s, you can’t just tell customers that they’d be better served eating at a McDonald’s. (Well, you can. But your hypothetical Wendy’s boss would be within her rights to fire you for doing so.)

It’s telling that Dea chooses to reduce the role of the professor to that of a fast-food employee. The claim that academic freedom must be set apart from freedom of expression because universities are like fast food joints is one of the most preposterous claims I have seen in years. The grafting of the customer service model onto academia is part of the reason that so many professors and ideologically heterodox students have been publicly shamed in the past ten years.

In the end, Semley comes to a predictable pre-determined, progressivist conclusion by smearing free speech proponents like Lindsay Shepherd and Dr. Jordan Peterson by claiming that they have made life “unsafe” for groups he seems to prefer. “Queer students,” Semley claims, are “afflicted” by seeing the phrase: “traditional marriage is awesome” scrawled on a wall. In the end, he concludes that Queer, nonbinary, and students of colour are “all fighting for the same basic sense of recognition that civil-rights protesters were struggling for in the ’60s.”

It’s a startling claim—that those who are shutting down speech and insisting on totalitarian tactics to cancel their fellow students and academics are, in fact, the true free speech heroes. Those who are open to all views and wish to express their own freely are the bad guys in Semley's world. Semley wants us to censor people because if we don’t, then the identity politics-based communities he cares about will be too traumatized to speak. They will be "silenced."

The thing is, the speech of the left is not only being heard, it’s being enforced. The language of left-wing activism, of trans inclusion, of race identitarianism is gospel on North American campuses. If you misgender someone or crack an edgy joke while strolling the quadrangle, it could land you in front of a star chamber or worse.

The Walrus’ tagline is “Canada’s Conversation." And in this narrow regard, Semley's message fits: Among all too many Canadian academics and writers, it’s now taken for granted that important “conversations” should be permitted only on condition that the “right” side gets to talk while the other side sits there with its mouth shut.

What we really need is a free speech revolution—a movement where everyone feels free to express their opinions without fear of mobbing and shaming. The bad ideas will wither and the good ideas will flourish, and we will all be richer for participating in the conversations that happen along the way.


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