by Paige Fisher and Nayha Rizvi

Students demonstrate against “Fuck Safe Space” message at Carleton University Sept. 8, 2014.  Photo: Sam Heaton
Students demonstrate against “Fuck Safe Space” message at Carleton University Sept. 8, 2014. Photo: Sam Heaton

Freedom of speech, a right which in recent times has been said to be at the top of the priority list of conservatives, seems to be making its way to the priority list of some Carleton students as well. Earlier this month, a group of Carleton University students caused a great deal of outrage when they were spotted wearing shirts with the phrase “Fuck Safe Space” printed on them.

Those involved stated that they were merely protesting the conditions of the Safe Space training they received as Orientation leaders, which called for abstaining from swearing and alcohol consumption during orientation week activities. The Orientation leaders have since issued a formal apology. Students, faculty and community members alike were thoroughly offended by the stunt. Carleton student Ellen Cottee said, “No matter what the wearers intended, it is still a very insensitive and harmful phrase to see on anyone, but especially those entrusted to guide freshmen into Carleton life.”

This, of course, brings to light a clear lack of understanding as to the true meaning of safe space. Moreover, the incident sparked various reactions ranging from “embrace safe space” rallies and discussions on social media to an outcry of an infringement of freedom of speech. The creation and wearing of these shirts represents an underlying frustration felt by many in this day and age: a deep-seated contempt for all things that could possibly be construed as an encroachment on one’s freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, the outrage that prompted the creation of the shirts would suggest that these students truly believe safe space rules are a form of censorship. This can be seen as part of a trend in which people rush to defend the right to say whatever they please in the name of free speech, another indication of the rise of Conservative culture that itself prioritises what it calls freedom of speech above all else.

In June 2013 Bill C-304, a private member’s bill that amended the Canadian Human Rights Act was passed in the House of Commons. The bill was proposed by Conservative MP Brian Storseth, and repealed sections 13 and 54 of the Canadian Human Rights Act in order to “ensure there is no infringement on freedom of expression guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Although hate speech does remain illegal under the Criminal Code, this change removed the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s power to remove hateful websites from the internet.

The Canadian Bar Association has expressed worries that this bill will enable hate speech to flourish with the lessened ability to regulate it on the internet. Nonetheless, the bill has been hailed by many Conservatives as a triumph for freedom of speech. This attitude is mimicked among the students of Carleton as well when they, regardless of malicious intent, flaunt the prioritization of freedom of speech above the assurance of safety and comfort of their peers.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 7, No. 1