Is free speech stifled in Canada?

Interviewed by host Rex Murphy on the March 28, 2010, program

"Is free speech sometimes stifled in Canada, especially by universities?"


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  • Michael Payton
    Michael Payton is a cognitive science researcher at York University. He also works with student clubs and debating societies and is a spokesperson for the Center for Inquiry Canada.

  • Dalmy Baez
    Former President of the U of Calgary Students Union, now works with immigrant youth in Calgary.

  • Barbara Kay
    National Post Columnist.

  • Tom Sandborn
    Board member of BC Civil Liberties Assoc. in Vancouver and writer.

  • Paul Cappon
    President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Council on Learning.

Rex Murphy's introduction to the March 28, 2010, program:

"Is free speech sometimes stifled in Canada, especially by universities?"

Today we want to talk about free speech. This past week, controversial American political pundit and humorist Ann Coulter made a speaking tour of three Canadian universities and she was met with protests.

But it was the University of Ottawa's handling of her visit that got people talking. Prior to her appearance, the university provost Francois Houle sent her a letter of warning, reminding her that some kinds of speech are subject to criminal charges here in Canada.

Coulter called it an attempt to intimidate and an encouragement to protestors. The protestors did turn out for her speech ...and because the police felt they couldn't guarantee her safety, the organizers decided to call it off.

Ann Coulter says Canadians don't understand the concept of free speech. She says it is misinterpreted as the freedom to express only nice, uncontroversial ideas.

She also accused the university of selective bias because other speakers there, such as former Black Panther Angela Davis and anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, did not receive such warning letters ...nor were they subject to noisy protests.

What do you think? Are universities good places to have open debate on controversial topics? Are they welcoming of controversial speakers? Or are they selective about who is welcome and who is not?

Universities seem to be a very fertile ground for quarrels over what speech is allowed. In Queen's a few years back there was a (short-lived) attempt to set up monitors for on campus conversations.

Also concerns about what are termed "homophobic, Islamophobic, sexist" and other 'categories' of speech have led to speech codes on American campuses - and are the rallying cries for those who want to set limits on speech. Certain topics in particular call out for very strong responses --- and in some cases attempts to limit speech --- abortion and Israel-Palestine are current illustrations.

There is a spin-off or related matter, in that "within classrooms" professors are sometimes nervous or careful of what or how they say things -- since it can be seen an "offensive or unsafe" to some students. Is this a limit of speech -- or a 'regardful sensitivity.' Should sensitivity be a test - or offensiveness?

Sometimes, of course, the quarrels over so-called free speech issues is just one group's way of saying they don't like what another group's speak is saying - or going to say.

What about the students themselves, should they be exposed to a range of views -- depending on your perspective, both good and bad? Should there be limits? Who decides? Is it fair that protesters can force an event to be cancelled?

Do universities merely mirror the society at large? Canada's human rights commissions have recently been the focus several cases that go right to the heart of the issue of free speech versus inciting hatred. Some people claim a right "not to be offended." Or, as we saw in Ottawa this week, some protestors claim certain speech such as Ann Coulter's is hate speech.

Who should decide administrators, student presidents, human rights commissions? Or is it best left to the criminal code and the courts?

Should there be the limits to speech? Do Canadians fully understand the concept ...or has it been diluted here in the hope of creating social peace?

It's a broad topic. Our question today: "Is free speech sometimes stifled in Canada, especially by universities?"

I'm Rex Murphy ...on CBC Radio One ...and on Sirius satellite radio channel 137 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.



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