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Free speech is not the campus problem you think it is

Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer wants to fix what he sees as a lack of free speech on campuses: by cutting off funds for universities that don't abide by the spirit of free speech. But professor Joseph Heath says post-secondary reality doesn't quite match the dramatic headlines.
Students cheer at a protest at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. Nov. 9, 2015 (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (The Associated Press)

If recent news is anything to go by, today's universities are stifling domains of political correctness, where controversial ideas are unwelcome.

Battles over safe spaces, trigger warnings, controversial guest speakers, and student activism, are a common theme in campus coverage.

To some commentators, like Rex Murphy, political correctness is triumphing over free speech on campus." 

Recently, Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer unveiled a policy to revoke federal funding to universities that fail to protect free speech.

But Joseph Heath, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, says while there are some things to be concerned about on campus, media and politicians tend to exaggerate the situation.

Heath believes the unrest seen on campuses in the United States of America has contributed to an idea that all universities are awash in radical protest.

"Scheer's policy is a good example of what happens when you pay a little too much attention to what's going on in the United States, and assume that anything bad happening in the United States is happening in Canada. The kinds of scenes we've been seeing in a lot of campuses across the United States is not really happening in Canada. There've been a few incidents, but the fact is they're different countries and we have very, very different university systems. And so, while there's definitely some stuff going on with students, the kind of policy he's recommending is a total overreaction to the situation."

Heath says most of the controversies in Canada come not out of the classroom, but the select world of campus student political groups, and the vast majority of students go to school and go home again without being drawn into a self-righteous screaming match.

But more broadly, Heath questions whether the concept of 'free speech' really applies to university at all. Heath notes that most controversies erupt outside of the classroom, and are related to student groups and guest speakers. In class, the concept of academic freedom is more appropriate than freedom of speech. 

"It's also important to recognize that we talk about academic freedom, not freedom of speech. So there's a constitutional principle of freedom of speech that the government is expected to respect. And that basically says: no content-based discrimination whatsoever about opinions, you can't ban speech except in very, very, select circumstances. Universities have a very different concept, academic freedom. If someone comes up to the university and says "I wanna give a talk on blah blah blah." A university doesn't feel obliged to give that person a platform, any more than a newspaper editor feels obliged to publish anything... to take an example, the faculty of medicine at my university doesn't feel obliged to a platform to anti-vaccination people... so universities are not committed to free speech the way the government needs to be committed to free speech."