Dalhousie dentistry scandal: Should free speech protect students from punishment?

What role does free speech play, if any, in the debate over the appropriate response to some misogynistic Facebook postings by male dentistry students at Dalhousie University? We found free speech experts with completely opposing views about this case.
Dalhousie University president Richard Florizone has said there will be 'significant consequences' for the dentistry students who posted misogynistic comments on Facebook. He said that expulsion of the men involved has not been ruled out. (CBC)

Here's one view: The students of Dalhousie University’s dentistry school who are responsible for misogynistic Facebook postings about their fellow female students should not be expelled, punished, or sanctioned for their actions. 

In fact, says Mark Mercer, chair of the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University, the students should be allowed to express their views, as offensive as they may be, without fear of any kind of reprisal from the school.

“One of the things that a university should be concerned with is that everyone feels able to say what they want, that there’s candour and openness,” says Mercer. “Only in the context of candour and openness can views be explored fully and criticized fully.

“So I think in a university context, anything that prevents us from saying what we want to say cuts against the mission of the university.”

Mercer, a free speech advocate, has staked out a position certainly at odds with many who have called for the expulsion of the students and are upset that a restorative justice process has been chosen, instead of harsher penalties for those alleged to have made the comments.

Dalhousie University president Richard Florizone has said there will be "significant consequences" and that, even with the restorative justice process, expulsion of the men involved has not been ruled out. 

The dentistry faculty at Dalhousie came under fire after CBC News received screenshots of sexually explicit posts on the so-called Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen Facebook page.

In one of the posts, male students in the group voted on which woman they'd like to have "hate sex" with and joked about using chloroform on women.

“It doesn’t matter how ugly, how vile it is," Mercer said. "Any rules against speech have the potential of blocking the road of inquiry, of preventing us from being candid and examining what we want to say.”

Four members of the institution's faculty filed formal complaints under the Halifax university's Code of Student Conduct, which states that students must not engage in "vexatious conduct, harassment or discrimination that is directed at one or more specific persons" or conduct that would "cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed."

Mercer argues that stifling speech only serves to drive it underground, or force students to speak in code, and not address the issues behind it.

In a later blog written for the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, Mercer expanded on his views, saying those who don’t mind punishing people for the content of their public expression, "should be uneasy when it comes to going after posters in the relative privacy of Facebook, I would think.

"Or is it only behind the locked doors of our houses that we can say what we want without worry?"

University students are members of an intellectual community, Mercer said, "and such a community is destroyed when members are directed to have certain beliefs and values, rather than allowed, through investigation and critical discussion, to come to their own beliefs and values.”

Another view

But John Carpay, a lawyer and president  of the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which advocates for free speech rights, said the comments made in the Facebook postings are not the ideas that university free speech are intended to defend.

He said he believes the university has a right to establish a code of conduct and have a legitimate right to discipline students for violating the code of conduct. 

"I'm a very very strong advocate for universities as being the place where you can express political, moral, cultural, social, religious — every kind of ideas. But it's the expression of ideas in the context of searching for truth. And in that context you have to allow for very unpopular ideas to be fully aired and expressed."

"What these students are talking about is so far removed from authentic academic discussion that it doesn't warrant much if any protection.

"And I say that with some reluctance, because I also say you can't censor speech on the basis of its content. But yet I think you can still qualify between what is the expression of an idea, culturally, politically, philosophically, versus just really getting down in the gutter."


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