Sunday, October 11, 2009

Censorship at McGill

 
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.

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.
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

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:

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.
So we're reduced to the point where academic freedom is just "rhetoric"?3

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."

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.
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.

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.]

20 comments :

  1. I came from Guelph to McGill and so when I started to hear about club accreditation and pro-choice protests, this was all familiar to me. Guelph has been wrestling with the same issues for years now.

    It seems like student unions (usually voted for by less than 20% of the student body as most students are indifferent) often decide they have a mandate to bring change to a university and use their position to push their own ideals. The CF mess at Carleton is perhaps an even better example.

    A letter to the McGill Daily (the independent student paper; the Tribune, as we've seen, can be an SSMU shill) said it better than I could:

    "Considering the virtual cacophony over Choose Life that has been going on, Sana Saeed’s comment on the group stands out as a fair and sober analysis of the situation. This is not surprising, as Saeed has proven herself in the past to be an intelligent writer and columnist. However, I do take issue with one of her points: she argues that an anti-abortion group has every right to exist at McGill, but says that these rights of expression do not go so far as to extend comparing those who have had abortions to Nazis. Comparing abortion to the Holocaust is pretty offensive to everyone, perhaps most offensive to McGill’s Jewish population. However, I think Choose Life should not be forced to abandon this campaign, as they recently did after the SSMU Council voted to censure the group and threatened to cut off the group’s funding. If Choose Life wants to make the abortion-genocide comparison, let them. I think that pro-choice activists at McGill should welcome such a demonstration from Choose Life; after all, it just makes them look like they’re fucking nuts."

    http://www.mcgilldaily.com/articles/20990

    Godwin's Law, anyone?

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  2. Guess I should also provide the letter he was responding to for completeness:

    http://www.mcgilldaily.com/articles/20733

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  3. Wow.

    Part of the deal, huh? What utter bullshit...

    You obviously haven't done any research on the The Genocide Awareness Project, The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, their affiliates, or Stephanie Gray, or poor stifled Jojo.

    Remember also, that they inflict themselves on student unions and institutions in order to appear "oppressed".

    Start here and follow the links:

    http://www.unmaskingchoice.ca

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  4. I remember the days when it was students who were advocating freedom of expression and administrators who were trying to suppress it.

    Well yes, so do I, but it wasn't long after those days that student organizations started trying to do the same -- the two eras may well have overlapped, in fact. Sometimes, the suppression of academic views that people don't like has been actively encouraged by distinguished academics, as for example the efforts by Richard Lewontin and his friends to suppress the expression of what was then called "sociobiology".

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  5. biopunk says,

    Remember also, that they inflict themselves on student unions and institutions in order to appear "oppressed".

    Exactly. And in typical knee-jerk fashion, the student unions are more than willing to act like stupid dupes.

    It's embarrassing enough to be played for a fool, it's even more embarrassing to prove them right.

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  6. Not when they imply legal actions against you for not allowing them on campus. Most student unions aren't going to go all the way with the CCB-ER and no admin wants to waste funds on lawsuits when they can be put to better use.

    We're not stupid dupes Larry, just poor, or with financial priorities elsewhere.

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  7. Anyone interested in this topic should really look up the Cass R Sunstein's 'Law of Group Polarization' for further insight (a paper can be found here if you have academic access).

    Part of the reason that universities have such extreme opinions - or more particularly certain groups have these opinions - is because of the lack of diversity of opinions on campus. Conservatives are correct when they refer to universities as bastions of Liberalism; there's a well known correlation between political opinion and education level in the population.

    Student unions are particularly bad because they typically cater to far-left activist types. Once you congregate them all together, the lack of dissenting opinions reinforces their own beliefs and they become more intolerant of other opinions. I've been on unions in a couple of institutions now, and it was enough to sour my opinion on them.

    I agree that universities are special places in that they encourage open debate/discussion. However, this type of behavior seems par for the course to me if you're talking about student unions.

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  8. While you are absolutely right in general, there is a small problem with that position that you fail to mention. It is actually a very general problem with democracy and anything that has to do with the opinion of many people having to be considered.

    Imagine a situation where there is an urgent need for action, however the action required runs against the opinion of certain subgroup within the larger group, or even the majority. If inadequate action is taken, the consequences will be very bad for everyone. However, there is no way for the people who understand the direness of the situation to persuade the rest because the rest are unwilling/incapable to listen/understand. So what do you do? Do you allow open debate about what to do that gets you nowhere or you forget about your nice principles and act according to what you know should be done? Do you go down the slippery slope or do you stick to your principles and watch as disaster unfolds?

    The situation with the abortion debate is exactly the same and it is not at all imaginary. And it's not just about abortion, it is about what it means to be a human and how we view the world and behave in it as a result of that.

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  9. There should be freedom of Expression on University Campuses as they're supposed to teach all sides of the equation, however, I will make an exception as I have heard this group is a particular gang of wingnuts.

    If SUZY ALLCAPSLOCK is blogging about it in favour of this group; that about confirms that they're wingnuts. http://bluewavecanada.blogspot.com/2009/10/ssmu-pro-aborts-were-victimized.html

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  10. As most of your commentators don't appear to agree with you Larry I will just say that I think you are 100% correct.

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  11. CK says,

    There should be freedom of Expression on University Campuses as they're supposed to teach all sides of the equation, however, I will make an exception as I have heard this group is a particular gang of wingnuts.

    And the reason why we should make you the censorship police is ...?

    Did you watch the video? I think some of the protesters are wingnuts even though I probably agree with their position. According to the "CK Rule of Censorship" this means that the group favoring abortion should be banned from campus because someone thinks they are wingnuts.

    Right?

    You just don't get it, do you?

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  12. I agree with Dr. Moran as well. Tolerating abhorrent speech is the price we must pay to keep speech free.

    When you're part of the majority that thinks certain speech is abhorrent or disgusting, it's easy to justify censoring it. The problem, of course, is that next time the majority may think your speech is abhorrent or disgusting. Perhaps the government decides that your anti-government speech is unacceptable, and off you go to jail. Iran, anyone?

    Someone who says they believe in freedom of expression, but is willing to make exceptions for some "gang of wingnuts," doesn't really believe in freedom of expression at all. They only believe in the "freedom" to conform.

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  13. biopunk says,

    We're not stupid dupes Larry, just poor, or with financial priorities elsewhere.



    No, the McGill student union is composed of stupid dupes.

    The anti-abortion people rang their bell and, just like Parvlov's dogs, they salivated.

    P.T. Barnum said there's one born every minute and most of them seem to have run for positions in students unions.

    The anti-abortion group are rightly congratulating themselves on their easy victory.

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  14. "Tolerating abhorrent speech is the price we must pay to keep speech free.
    "


    But must we tolerate all abhorrent speech? To what end?

    Is it not possible for intelligent people to come to an agreement on the few abhorrent messages which have no redeeming value to society?


    Is the marketplace of ideas really devalued by, say, the 16,000th iteration of the same speech of a Holocaust denier? Especially in the internet age, where any topic is a mere click away.

    Must a University, of all places, feel compelled to offer a prestigious venue for that Holocaust speaker? Or NAMBLA? Or Al Queda?

    Free speech is decidedly not an binal, absolute concept. Free speech in practice has many restrictions, some of which actually make sense as a benefit to society.

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  15. SDorry - should be:

    Is the marketplace of ideas really devalued by, say, the [censorship of] the 16,000th iteration of the same speech of a Holocaust denier?

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  16. Must a University, of all places, feel compelled to offer a prestigious venue for that Holocaust speaker? Or NAMBLA? Or Al Queda?

    As long as the speaker's organization is legal, has gone through the proper reservation procedures, and paid the appropriate fee, then yes, it must.

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  17. Even though I agree with Mr. Moran, I think this situation is a bit sticky since they are using the holocaust. Are other anti-semitic speakers allowed? How about the KKK and white-supremacists? Even though those are very different groups from the pro-lifers, the pro-lifers have edged just enough over the line where if you allow them, you risk a negative response from the jewish community over the use of the holocaust, and if you deny them, they have an example of them being victims to use. Unfortunately, I think the best course would have been to allow the speech, and then just walk away. There will be a few students who follow the speech, but there will always be students who follow any side.

    I think our current political environment that encourages forcing what one believes to be correct on another group contributes to this. People forget that the rights of the minority viewpoint, as long as it is not directly causing obvious harm to others, is still to be protected no matter what the majority think. The speech that was denied was not going to cause any kind of obvious harm to others. It was merely just in bad taste.

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  18. "But must we tolerate all abhorrent speech?"

    No, but there are legal guidelines for that. Speech that directly incites violence is not protected, and need not be tolerated. Admittedly, it will not always be easy to decide when speech crosses such a legal line. But I prefer to see such lines drawn at the point where speech morphs into action, rather than attempting to outlaw speech that is merely intellectually abhorrent.

    "Must a University, of all places, feel compelled to offer a prestigious venue for that Holocaust speaker? Or NAMBLA? Or Al Queda?"

    I don't think the university itself has any compulsion to offer prestigious venues to such speakers, or to endorse their messages in any way. But that doesn't mean it may censor other groups that wish to entertain such speakers. Moreover, if a group wishes to use university facilities, and is otherwise eligble to do so, I do not think the university should be able to prevent that based solely on the content of the speaker's message.

    "Even though I agree with Mr. Moran, I think this situation is a bit sticky since they are using the holocaust. Are other anti-semitic speakers allowed? How about the KKK and white-supremacists?"

    IMO, yes, yes, and yes. Even though I consider all three groups to be vile and evil.

    "Unfortunately, I think the best course would have been to allow the speech, and then just walk away."

    I agree.

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  19. ""Even though I agree with Mr. Moran, I think this situation is a bit sticky since they are using the holocaust. Are other anti-semitic speakers allowed? How about the KKK and white-supremacists?"

    IMO, yes, yes, and yes. Even though I consider all three groups to be vile and evil."

    ----Even though I didn't follow what the end result was, I distinctly remember Shelelah (unsure of spelling) was trying to enact speech codes on campus at UW-Madison in the 90's. I imagine if speech codes were passed those same three groups would find it very difficult to get a venue at that university.

    I just looked now and it looks like speech codes were overturned in 1999, so I guess they passed when I was in school. Guess my knowledge of what's going on at the universities is a bit out-dated.

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  20. To follow up, the Deputy Provost of student Life and Learning has said:

    “The University has been very open with respect to protest, but it also has limits. One of the limits we are absolutely adamant about is protest that disrupts the free expression of ideas on campus,” he said. “[It] crosses the line because that protest is attacking or undermining the core value of a university, that is meant to educate, transmit, and discover knowledge.”

    Seems the university itself is on the right page still.

    http://www.mcgilldaily.com/articles/21252

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