September 18, 2003  
Volume 97, Issue 12  

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The last bastion of free speech?

By Kelly Marcella and Maggie Wrobel
Gazette Staff

Dallas Curow/Gazette
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE: WESTERN'S MOST RECOGNIZABLE LANDMARK. Last bastion of free speech or hotbed of political correctness?

Political correctness is one of those terms that is constantly thrown around - but does anyone actually know what it means?

he term most often refers to the act of consciously avoiding the use of words or actions that could possibly offend someone. This is not a straightforward "black and white" definition, however, it's important the existence of this phenomenom be noted, discussed and questioned - especially in a university setting.

It's hard to disagree with the claim universities arguably be one of the last remaining bastions of free speech. After all, a place of higher learning should pride itself on the encouragement and education of critical thinking.

Western psychology professor Heinz Klatt claims that while university professors and administrators claim to work together under a mandate that encourages research and teaching free of restrictions, the reality that exists at Western is very different from the proposed mandate.

"[The administration] claims that [professors] must not be regulated or controlled by any restrictions, because universities are the prime institutions of society that must be free. However, students at Western are systematically deprived of learning about social, racial and sexual differences between people [due to the fear of political persecution]," Klatt says.

"I think over time many professors at universities have become increasingly sensitive for fear that they will somehow offend or be misinterpreted as offensive," says Donald Abelson, professor of political science at Western. "There is a delicate balance between being sensitive and not being forced to misrepresent views you wish to convey."

Abelson says the people who tend to be overly concerned with political correctness are those who tend to infuse their own opinions into their teachings. "I become concerned when [and if] faculty spread their political gospel," he says, adding faculty should teach the material at hand and educate the students.

Klatt argues that, although there is no formal censorship of faculty at Western, professors are unable to speak freely in their classrooms. "No professor dares speak his mind honestly because no one would dare teach anything that's not deemed politically correct."

However, not all professors, such as English professor Bryce Traister, share Klatt's viewpoint. "While there have been a few notorious examples of faculty being censored or excoriated for their views, it is simply untrue that the feminists, etc. are out to stifle free inquiry and debate or have in any way succeeded in doing so," Traister states.

According to Western's VP-academic Greg Moran, in no way does the university deliberately attempt to create an environment where professors feel they cannot speak freely and he certainly hopes this is not the environment at Western. Moran emphasizes the need to have an environment where critical and difficult issues can be discussed in a respectful and sensible manner.

"I don't think PCness is a good thing. We want an atmosphere where we respect diversity and the sensibilities of others, which is very different from [political correctness]," Moran explains. "I don't think a respectful atmosphere need be one that impedes candid and open debate."

Abelson agrees with this assessment, noting there should be a delicate balance between being sensitive and ensuring you are not misrepresenting the views you wish to convey. He says universities should continue to encourage the exchange of informed views and attempt to get rid of uninformed opinions, such as ones based on ignorance.

Moran further notes that if Western's environment is one where critical and difficult issues can not be discussed as a result of the sensibilities of others, there exists the problem.

Klatt disagrees with this assessment however, noting the definition of "harassment" has changed in such a way at the university level that it has begun to affect what is being taught in classrooms and how.

For example, Klatt claims the use of university codes of conduct, such as those that make reference to relations between the sexes and race relations, are cleverly concealed "speech codes" which limit both the behaviour and the speech of faculty members in an "Orwellian (and) communist manner."

According to Moran, a host of Western policies are in place to ensure balance between freedom of speech and a respectful atmosphere. Policies on race relations and sexual harassment provide people with the opportunity to address any cases in which the atmosphere has been disrespectful, he says.

On the other hand, Moran notes, it's important to critically balance these policies with the ability to discuss issues that are difficult and may be offensive, such as euthanasia, gay rights and the role of religion in global conflict.

"We have to create an atmosphere where we can learn how to evaluate issues logically and with critical judgement. It's a problem if we can't discuss things," Moran says, adding the issue is very important and the university must continue to strive to reach a balance.




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