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Blog June 27, 2019

Censorship Has No Place in the University

Recent events at the University of British Columbia show again the powerful allure of censorship as the way to deal with deeply concerning social issues. In this case, the issue is sexual identity and gender identity.

Jenn Smith, who identifies as a bisexual transgender male but is against “transgender ideology”, was scheduled to give a talk at UBC on June 23rd. Smith had rented space at UBC as part of a speaking tour across the province on “The Erosion of Freedom: How Transgender Politics in School and Society Are Undermining Our Freedom and Harming Women and Children!”

The prospect of his talk provoked protests at UBC. Some challenged Smith’s ideas in blogposts, tweets and by rallying outside the venue for the talk, holding signs with messages of support for trans and LGBTQ people, waving the rainbow and trans flags, blowing loud horns and chanting – exercising their right to free expression.

Others responded by calling for censorship – urging the University to cancel the event. Regrettably those calling for censorship included the University of British Columbia Faculty Association (UBCFA) and the  Association of Administrative Professional Staff at UBC (AAPS).

In a letter to UBC president Santa Ono, the AAPS executive director Joey Hansen decried the University’s decision to allow Smith to speak as “not just indefensible [but] also irresponsible.” He argued that the prospect of Smith’s talk makes “a large number of AAPS members… feel violated and/or unsafe as well as wholly disrespected by their employer.”

Faculty association president Bronwen Sprout similarly wrote to the Chair of the UBC Board of Governors urging him “to overturn the decision to hold the event.” She said that “based on previous activities of Jenn Smith, there is a strong prima facie case that not only certain individuals in the UBC academic community but indeed the UBC academic community as a whole may be harmed by this event.” [my emphasis]

She adds, “Irresponsible, disrespectful, and discriminatory speech, including by non-UBC persons who have booked space on campus, harms the core academic activities of the UBC community.”

I would like to note several things at this point.

First, I would not walk across the street to hear Jenn Smith. I find his views on “transgender ideology” offensive and wrong. That said, I do not have the right to impose my disdain for his ideas on others by preventing them from hearing him.

Second, unlike public libraries, universities have no obligation to rent space to members of the public. Once having decided to do so, however, they appear to, and do, betray the fundamental importance of freedom of expression to the university and to society by caving in to censors who want them to cancel the event.

Fortunately, the UBC administration did not do this. In a post on the UBC website, university provost Andrew Szeri wrote, “I want to be clear, UBC does not endorse the views of controversial speakers or the organizations that book them or any other speakers who are invited to its campuses.”

He continued,  “The fundamental issue here is what the university stands for... UBC must be an open and inclusive forum, where members of the University have the freedom ‘to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.’ Selectively shutting down conversations on complex and challenging topics undermines that crucial foundation that enables challenge of the status quo. Ultimately, silenced opinions are not subject to ‘full and unrestricted consideration.’”

Noting that some had justified their call for cancellation by claiming that Smith’s views were “hate speech”, University Counsel Hubert Lai rightly advised that the answer is not prior restraint but that “Hate speech is a criminal matter in Canada and we would encourage anyone who believes the content of a speakers’ remarks are indeed hate speech to contact the police.”

The irony of this situation should not be lost on us. For most of past 100 years, it has been students and faculty demanding free speech rights in opposition to censorship and repression by university administrations and boards. Now the tables have turned – at least at UBC – with the administration recognizing the heart of the university is the opportunity to consider, examine, evaluate, analyze, criticize, and debate all ideas, theories, and proposals.

Contrary to the implications of the UBCFA and AAPS letters, freedom of expression and social justice are not antithetical. They are allied in their opposition to orthodoxy and in their commitment to inclusion and participation. They are both necessary for the university to fulfill its social mission of advancing knowledge and educating students.

As the Wilfrid Laurier University Senate Statement on Freedom of Expression says, “The university must embrace the concept of ‘inclusive freedom’ which espouses a commitment to the robust protection of free expression, and the assurance that all members – including those who could be marginalized, silenced, or excluded from full participation – have an opportunity to meaningfully engage in free expression, enquiry, and learning…It is not the role of the university to censor speech.”

Free expression rights generally in Canada, and academic freedom rights of academic staff in universities, are essential for the university to fulfill its unique role in society. All is lost when free expression is understood to allow the silencing of viewpoints with which some disagree or even find abhorrent. We learn by having to confront contrary views, and contest them, never by simply censoring them. The real harm to the whole academic community occurs when any part of it overrides the ability of the rest to hear and engage ideas however controversial or unwelcome.

Censors almost always have good reasons, at least in their own minds, for justifying censorship. But we know two things about censorship historically. It doesn’t work and is usually counterproductive. In the university more than anywhere else in our society, we should know well that the way to deal with speech we find harmful, hateful, or simply wrong is not the suppression of speech, but more speech.