Volume 93, Issue 51

Tuesday, November 30, 1999


Need to check your headlines

One musn't overshadow the other

A hard look at debate and freedom

A hard look at debate and freedom

Re: "Not on our lawn" Nov. 18

To the Editor:

Seen as an invitation to debate, The Gazette editorial on freedom of speech was most welcome. Seen as a blueprint for policy, it was something less. The editorial's argument against free speech on campus was based on three main premises: that the university is private property; that free speech has to be "taken in context" and that we can rely on duly-constituted "authority" to decide who can speak and what they can say.

The university is private property. In other words, the university belongs to "us" – or perhaps "those who think like us." It is ours in some way and we can exclude whom we will. But Western is not so private that we are above asking taxpayers for something like $200 million a year in operating income and research and capital expenditure grants. This university belongs to those who built it – the people. If you don't want them to visit campus and disturb your peace, then don't ask them to pay to keep you warm and fed through the winter.

Free speech has to be taken in context. This is the "I'm almost a virgin" school of thought. The whole point of the right to freedom of speech is that it is not fettered. By putting up with constraints on this right, we would be giving the right up. Free speech does not mean, free as long as you don't offend anyone. It means, free, end of story.

We can rely on authority to decide who can speak. There is, of course, a cost to freedom of speech. Opponents of free speech on campus point out that it may "offend" some who hear it, as if this in itself was enough to cause sensible people to accept a limitation on the right. Is it? Let's consider the upside and the downside of eliminating the right to free speech and of preserving the right.

Suppose we eliminate the right. The "upside" is that no one has to hear anything that bothers them. But encountering alternative attitudes and values can make you strong. It can help you develop and evaluate your own arguments against opposing views. Thus, free speech that offends because it presents a point of view very different from our own can serve a useful function – perhaps the most important function of the university.

If the "upside" of eliminating the right is cause for concern, the downside is downright scary. Once we agree that there are to be constraints on free speech, so that bad things are never said in public, we then have to decide what those bad things are – or rather, choose people to make the decision for us. Who should it be?

Perhaps London mayor Dianne Haskett. It was reported that in October, she phoned the Grand Theatre and as mayor asked them to remove the word "Devil" from the theatre's Halloween fundraising event, billed as "Devil's Night."

How about Jean Chrétien? His contribution to freedom of speech is Bill C-2, which will limit ordinary people and their groups to spending (at most) an average of $500 per constituency and no more than $3,000 in any one constituency. The penalty for spending more could be a prison term. Jail – for freely speaking our minds.

Or perhaps we could follow the advice of The Gazette editorial and leave it up to university "authority." These would be the fine folks who brought you Residencegate, the arbitrary expulsion of four students for a prank, followed by the equally process-free re-admission of the same students when they sued. These people make up the rules as they go along and when that doesn't work, invoke Orwellian "reserve powers." Do you want them deciding who can say what?

Consider now the upside and downside of unfettered freedom of speech. The upside is that we get to call to account those who exercise authority arbitrarily, which is most of those who have authority. Don't underestimate how important this is.

The downside of free speech? Not much. Oh, some people might be offended now and then. When that happens, you have the right to sing the blues and you have the right to get over it. But you do not have the right to arrange the world so that you are never offended.

An open society draws people to it, from all over. An open society becomes a diverse society. In a diverse society, the only way to avoid having people be offended is to water down public discourse to the level of Hallmark cards. If you value diversity, you must value free speech that expresses that diversity. You can't have it both ways.

To live in an open society, the price of admission is occasionally being offended. That's the best bargain you'll ever get.

Patrick Brown
Department of Psychology

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