Ok, look, I get it. Milo Yiannopoulos is insufferable, Breitbart is to journalism what homoeopathy is to medical science, and Donald Trump is one haircut away from being President Lex Luthor. I get it.
But here is the thing: rioting and denying a person his right to speak on a university campus never solves anything.
If you followed American headlines last night, you would have read stories about a speech Yiannopoulos was to give at the University of California at Berkeley. The event was cancelled because protests turned to riots. In response, and showing his usual eloquent leadership style, president
Luthor Trump said he would pull Berkley’s federal funding.
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
Trump has been mostly wrong about, well, everything, and threatening to pull a university’s funding is utterly lunk-headed. But beneath his bluster, Trump is almost, nearly, right on this score. (Hey, we have to take what we can get these days.)
Nevermind that Yiannopoulos has a right to free speech like everyone else, universities are supposed to be about the free exchange of ideas, not just the ideas you happen to like. Protest a speaker if you feel that strongly about it, but rioting and preventing a speech is illiberal and anti-democratic.
Ah, I can almost hear your thoughts, dear reader. This is an American issue. We Canadians are a more enlightened bunch whose country isn’t spiralling down a drain of madness.
The truth is we Canucks don’t have much to brag about on this front. In the last few years, there have been some high-profile incidents on Canadian university campuses, where speakers were cancelled, blocked or free speech otherwise impinged. For instance, in 2010, controversial American pundit Anne Coulter’s speech at the University of Ottawa was cancelled amid security issues.
There is an annual report produced by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms — a Canadian free speech watchdog — that looks at the state of free speech on Canadian campuses. It’s 2015 report graded 41 campuses with an F for how it handled free speech issues, and only gave an A to 8 schools. Failing grades were given to universities that, according to the report, failed to protect free speech in a number of ways including removing Muslim books from campus, having to cancel a speech by a Liberal MP because of security concerns, banning anti-abortion materials on campus and other incidents.
It also compares the commitment universities have to free speech, which is often good, to their policies to protect it, which often fall short.
The full report is worth a read.
If there is any place to have a vigorous debate of ideas, it is on a university campus. That is ultimately what they are there for. Short of actual hate-crime speech — which is by necessity narrowly and specifically defined — there are few legitimate limits on free expression.
You want to stand up for liberal, democratic values? Start by defending the right of someone whose views you dislike to speak. You don’t like the views of a Milo Yiannopoulos? Then listen to them and argue against them. Don’t set fires and smash windows or demand he be silenced. Engage. Debate. Persuade people with the strength of your ideas rather than shutting down others who want to express theirs — even if the ideas you oppose are utterly repugnant.
There are ultimately two views on freedom of speech. As Noam Chomsky once said: “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”