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Suppressing unwanted views never works: James Turk on campus free speech debates

When Ryerson University cancelled a panel discussion called "The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses," it was beyond ironic for James Turk. The university's Director of the Centre for Free Expression denounced administrators for their cowardice, and implored students not to ban people whose ideas they find repugnant — but to engage with them.
A protester holds a sign that reads "Make Fascists Afraid Again!" during a demonstration on Jan. 20, 2017 at the University of Washington campus, where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech. (The Associated Press)

"We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." John Stuart Mill wrote those words in his polemic, On Liberty. It was published in 1859. 

In the intervening century-and-a-half or so, we have accepted freedom of expression as a bedrock principle of living in a liberal democracy. In Canada, it is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

We have also decided to draw a line. The same Charter states that our right to free expression is subject to "reasonable limits prescribed by law." That includes Criminal Code provisions against the incitement or promotion of hatred.

However, it is not just the courts that are drawing a line between free speech and hate speech. Activists who see certain views as repugnant successfully have shut down public events and speeches. 

The most heated controversies have centred on the institutions we view as essential to fostering public discussion and debate — our universities.

The conservative social commentator Anne Coulter cancelled a speech at the University of Ottawa because organizers decided it wasn't safe for her to speak.

The University of Calgary cancelled the screening of a documentary film that promotes men's rights and bashes feminism.

And recently, Ryerson University in Toronto cancelled a panel discussion called, ironically, "The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses." University administrators said they could not provide the security necessary to ensure public safety.

James Turk wrote a trenchant editorial in opposition to the Ryerson decision. He is the university's Director of the Centre for Free Expression, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor. For 16 years, he served as the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Free speech is about protecting speech you abhor, so your speech may be heard when others abhor what you have to say.- James Turk

Click 'Listen' above to hear the full interview. 


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