I believe that universities are special places. The primary objective of the university community is to learn and investigate. That goal should not be restricted or impeded by outside concerns, especially if those "concerns" are ideologically or politically motivated. Society relies on universities to harbor unconventional and unusual opinions. It's where the minority viewpoint can be protected until it becomes the majority, as happens so often in a progressive society.
The other objective of a university is disseminating knowledge. That's why students come to a university to learn and it's why universities offer public lectures. It's why students and faculty members are encouraged to speak out on controversial topics. Universities thrive on diversity and that's why the most extreme opinions can be heard on campuses. It's part of the deal.
We're all familiar with the attempts to censor unpopular opinions. Mostly we get upset when left-wing protests are suppressed as happened during the 60s when the anti-war demonstrations were opposed [see Kent State Shootings]. We know about attempts to fire communist and gay professors and we are outraged to learn that women are being discriminated against in the universities.
What about opinions that don't fall into the liberal camp? Are we upset when those opinions are suppressed in the universities? No, not so much. I'm constantly surprised and disappointed when I hear some of my colleagues urging the dismissal of creationist professors or trying to block IDiots from lecturing on campus.
That's stupid and hypocritical. The value of a university is only protected when all opinions are respected.1 You can't pick and choose which ones deserve protection and which ones should be censored. Universities don't function once you start down that path.
The McGill student newspaper has started down that path with an article about a student pro-life club: EDITORIAL: Choose Life crossed the line with Ruba event. The editors seem to have set themselves up as sole arbitrators of some kind of imaginary "line" that can't be crossed.
At 6 p.m. tonight, Choose Life, the Students' Society's pro-life club, will host a presentation by Jose Ruba, a co-founder of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, titled "Echoes of the Holocaust." Ruba's speech will attempt to draw parallels between abortion and the Holocaust, by arguing that "dehumanization and denial of personhood has justified some of the greatest affronts to human dignity that the world has seen." The presentation refers to abortion as a "mass human rights violation" and includes graphic imagery such as photos of dead bodies at concentration camps followed by photos of supposedly aborted foetuses.These are the sorts of issues that test our mettle. Either you support freedom of expression on the campus or you don't. There's no middle ground where you support some expression but not others.2
On Thursday night, SSMU Council voted to censure the event and to make Choose Life ineligible to receive funding if they go through with tonight's presentation. We commend them for that decision. The comparison of abortion to the Holocaust is not only horribly offensive and inaccurate, it is deliberately designed to be inflammatory. This event is not intended to foster debate - it is designed to be provocative and to distract from meaningful discussion of abortive rights.
The editors of The McGill Tribune have just failed the test.
Let's see how the Student Society of McGill University (SMU) does when they're put to the test. This is part of an An open letter from the SSMU Executive to McGill University regarding Choose Life.
An open letter from the SSMU Executive:So we're reduced to the point where academic freedom is just "rhetoric"?3
The SSMU Executive is incredibly concerned and upset about the response of McGill University to the recent "Echoes of the Holocaust" event, hosted by the SSMU club Choose Life. We feel that McGill University has not only disrespected the rights of the SSMU as the accredited representative body of all McGill undergraduate students, but also failed to protect students' rights.
McGill University has not respected SSMU Council and the SSMU Executives as representatives of the McGill undergraduate student population. When the SSMU Council passed a resolution officially and publically censuring the event "Echoes of the Holocaust", the SSMU Council clearly stated that for Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson to permit it to go forward would disregard the desire of the Council. In response Professor Mendelson argued that this resolution is a tyranny of the majority. Firstly, this is an offensive misrepresentation of the purpose of SSMU Council. The SSMU Council was acting on behalf of all undergraduate students, both in its representative capacity and in reaction to many conversations with students. Secondly, it is worrisome that the Deputy Provost interprets a large percentage of students being outraged and appalled at an event to be a tyranny of the majority. The SSMU had hoped that he would consider the impact as well as content of the presentation instead of ignoring the formal intervention of students' representative body by using the rhetoric of academic freedom.
I remember the days when it was students who were advocating freedom of expression and administrators who were trying to suppress it. Now those students are administrators and we have a whole new generation of students who don't understand the meaning of freedom on a university campus. How times change.
Incidentally, a large group of students succeeded in preventing Jose Ruba from speaking at the event according to a report in The National Post: Tim Mak: McGill abortion advocates block opposing opinions. They sang songs for three hours until the organizers gave up and went home.
Here's a video of the first part of the event so you can see for yourselves what transpired. The students do not earn my respect for their behavior. They have the right of freedom of expression and they have the right to express their disagreement but they do not have the right to prevent contrary opinions from being expressed on a university campus.
The event prompts Tim Mak, a former employee of the Fraser Institute, to write ...
But these are university campuses nowadays, ruled by an arrogant minority on the left, who despite their paucity, believe they speak for everyone. "I don't think that this type of talk should be allowed to happen at McGill," said Eisenkraft Klein, one of the protestors arrested, in the McGill Tribune. "This is student space. This is not public property."Some of you might be afraid that the world is coming to an end when I agree with someone like Tim Mak. Not so, there really are open-minded conservatives who defend freedom of expression. I'm proud to ally with them on this issue.
What conceit. Klein’s implication was that her opinions represented those of all McGill students, that student space was only for activities that conformed to her parochial political views. I’m by no means a supporter of the pro-life movement. But I am a supporter of the modern conservative movement – a movement that believes that freedom of speech means free speech for all. On the other hand, the left has found it convenient to hide behind the tenets of free speech when they want to, say, condemn Israel, but have found it much harder to extend the protections of free speech to positions they disagree with.
I’ve always found that the most interesting lecturers are those with whom I have the least in common. Who wants to spend a couple hours nodding affirmatively at PowerPoint slides? But we’ll never know what Ruba might have said, and all reasonable students have left to do is sing the free speech blues.
Call me an accommodationist ...
A good case can be made that exposing stupid ideas to the light of day—and to serious debate in the university community—is the best way to discredit them. (Ignoring them works, too.) Trying to suppress them is the best way to give them the publicity they thrive on and it has the exact opposite effect to what the protesters desire. So, in addition to objecting to the student's behavior on the grounds of protecting freedom of expression, I object on the grounds that it's a tactically stupid way to oppose kooks.
1. "Respected" doesn't mean you have to agree. You can vigorously oppose any idea that's expressed on a campus but you can't muzzle it on the grounds that you disagree.
2. Don't quibble about this. Yes, we can all think of some examples of expression that must be excluded—yelling "fire" in a crowded classroom—for example.
3. I'm aware of the fact that the term "academic freedom" can be misused. If Morton Mendelson used "academic freedom" to permit the event to go forward then that's unfortunate. There are better ways to describe the principle I defend—it's "freedom of expression on university campuses."
[Hat Tip: Canadian Cynic. I strongly disagree with him on this one.]