Abigail Curlew

On the heels of the academic new year, as students were preparing to return to class and instructors were scrambling to put their syllabi together, Ford decreed that colleges and universities must implement a free speech policy, or risk losing public funding.

Free speech issues are perplexing, multidimensional, and complex — it is an agonizing process of constantly balancing the imperative to speak truth to power with the need to foster anti-oppressive strategies.

This decision was announced just before the start of the fall semester, with an ambitious deadline set for the new year. This is a ballsy move coming from the Ford administration, considering only a week prior Ford set up a snitch site to bully primary and secondary teachers into using an outdated and anti-queer sex-ed curriculum from the 1990s.

It is unclear if the provincial government will be able to feasibly or legally enforce such a decision. Regardless, it is an important time to mobilize on campus to ensure that policies hostile to marginalized folks aren’t solidified by the university administration.

De-platforming hate speech protest at a protest against Geert Wilders in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Melanie Lazarow

Carleton University has committed to working with the Ford government on the policy implementation. However it remained predictably vague and ambiguous about how they would move forward.

When asked for comment by The Leveller, Carleton University spokesperson Steven Reid  responded, “Universities and societies thrive when ideas are expressed openly and debated vigorously and respectfully. In line with the recent COU [Council of Ontario Universities] statement on behalf of all Ontario Universities, Carleton will work with government and other stakeholders to ensure that freedom of expression remains alive and healthy on campus and in Ontario.”

Reid refused to comment any further when asked how Carleton would balance the need for free speech on campus with their responsibility to protect students, faculty, and staff from forms of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and other forms of vitriolic behaviour.

Free speech issues are perplexing, multidimensional, and complex  –  it is an agonizing process of constantly balancing the imperative to speak truth to power with the need to foster anti-oppressive strategies. This is because of the social stigmatization and discrimination that marginalized folks experience when far-right bigots drop the free speech card in order to dodge accountability or criticism.

The Ford government is calling for the implementation of the Chicago Principles, a favored benchmark in right-wing free speech circles. The Chicago Principles refer to the Statement on Principles of Free Expression, a non-binding policy statement published by the University of Chicago to address de-platforming strategies used against offensive speakers.

The Chicago Principles are controversial in that they encourage action against the protesting and de-platforming tactics that are often used to mobilize against bigoted speakers. They also implement a system of free speech that does not account for societal stratification or inequalities that leave some marginalized writers, activists, and scholars silenced and censored out of fear of reprisal. For instance, as a trans feminine writer my work exposes me to doxxing, harassment, and intimidation enacted over social media, which I otherwise did not experience when I identified as a cisgender male.

Though the Chicago Principles nuance that free speech is never an absolute condition and that there’s sometimes reasonable restrictions on speech and expression on campus, it is broadly insufficient at addressing the major tensions between the right to free speech and the need for anti-oppression policies.

The fundamental issue that I have with these policies is that the authors of the Chicago Principles do not account for the existence of structural disadvantages that marginalized folks face in a socially stratified society. If the baseline in our society is inequality, then it’s clear that within a system of absolute free speech, only those sitting on the top of that hierarchy will be free to say and do as they please.

For instance, when Jordan Peterson argues with a trans activist, he arguments literally undercut that person’s gender identity. In other words, his primary arguments denigrate the very terms of a trans person’s sense of self and belongingness in the world. And there is nothing that a trans person can say to maintain equal footing in such an exchange.

However, because of the privileged position of white, cis male scholars, Peterson’s speech rises to the top and – despite its dubious quality – is celebrated, while his opponent’s positions are attacked by the vitriol-ridden digital mob that is his supporters.

When Peterson does react to valid and robust criticism, it is through a lens of anger and vitriol because he isn’t used to his societal privileges being challenged. Ironically, he’s unable to extrapolate from his experience of having his absolutist free speech challenged, have compassion, and realize how his arguments threaten the fundamental human rights of his opponents.

The free speech movement began during the 1960s at the University of California in Berkeley as a left-leaning, radical era of protests and acts of civil disobedience. However, in its contemporary form, the movement has been hijacked by far-right interests as a rhetorical strategy to legitimize hate speech, while also silencing the views of marginalized folks through intimidation, bullying and harassment.

This is compounded by the fact that it is becoming increasingly more acceptable to spread white supremacist, nationalist, and cis- and hetero-normative, patriarchal politics. For instance, there was an outpour of public support for a literal fascist when Faith Goldy was de-platformed at Wilfrid Laurier University. Folks were pissed off that a racist sitting on the fringe of far-right politics wasn’t able to speak her mind at an institution of learning.

When we let figures like Faith Goldy and Jordan Peterson spread hostile ideologies across college and university campuses, we inevitably create a chilly environment for marginalized folks. This means that simply for marginalized folks to rebut attacks on their basic human rights, they need to stand up to figures hostile to their very existence – and the oftentimes violent retaliation from their supporters.

The stakes of public participation for marginalized folks are burdened with a fear of reprisal from hate groups and their supporters.

Since Ford mandated that colleges and universities must cobble together these policies by the new year, we need to start conversations about how to include social justice and anti-oppression provisions into the Chicago Principles immediately.

Deborah MacLatchy, vice-chancellor and president of Wilfrid Laurier University, has suggested a good starting point for these discussions. After a comprehensive investigation into the state of free speech on campus, MacLatchy announced that the university administration would be implementing a “better speech” policy.

In her op-ed for the Globe and Mail, MacLatchy writes, “In the face of language that threatens the humanity of our students, staff or faculty, we must continually promote better speech. This means questioning and challenging opinions with sound arguments and evidence. Students and faculty must be able to share views and experiences while simultaneously committing to high ethical and intellectual standards for open, constructive conversations.”

Calling for critical reflection, she continues, “Inclusive freedom involves a vigorous commitment to free speech, coupled with the assurance that all individuals have an opportunity to engage in free expression, inquiry and learning.”

Better speech policies might amount to a leaky patchwork to address the growing discontent around campus free speech issues, but it does allow for a space to begin more robust discussions.

In order to better address anti-oppression principles, we will need to address the issue of burdening marginalized students with the task of defending their own basic human rights. For instance, under this policy framework it will be trans undergraduate students who will be left with the labor or defending themselves against bigoted speech.

We need to ensure that the Chicago Principles do not become a pathway to bigotry across college and university campuses. Though it is no easy task, we should take Ford’s political intervention as an opportunity to think deeply about these issues and put forward novel ways to nurture accountable, academic spaces for students and researchers.

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