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Free speech and civility

By David Wilson

An unwritten rule at the small Ontario university I attended in the 1970s stipulated that there would be a crisis — a strike, faculty shakeup, student union scandal — every February. In 1974, the February crisis at Trent University came a month early.

It was sparked by a CTV public affairs show called Under Attack, which made the rounds of university campuses, pitting students against high-profile, often controversial guests. The producers had chosen our Peterborough, Ont., campus for an episode featuring a rabid white supremacist and anti-Semitic lawyer from the state of Georgia named Jesse B. Stoner. Stoner was so extreme that even his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had expelled him decades earlier. For a brief period, he served on the appeal team of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. No one knew it at the time, but Stoner had also been involved in a 1958 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala.

All hell broke loose when word came in January of Stoner’s looming visit. Leftist students argued that the university was not a soapbox for bigots or fascists. Moderates squirmed, insisting that free speech was free speech: it applied to everyone. Let the man speak, they said. He’s so repugnant, he’ll condemn himself. Passions reached a fever pitch as the date for the taping drew closer.

I was reminded of the Stoner crisis as I read Justin Dallaire’s cover story about recent clashes on university campuses in Canada and the United States. The questions at the core of these confrontations are essentially the same as those that fuelled the debate at Trent more than 40 years ago: What do we really mean by freedom of speech? Is everyone entitled to it? If not, who decides what’s acceptable? On what grounds?

Dallaire’s story suggests that today’s campus dust-ups are overtly ideological. Right-wing groups complain they’re systematically muzzled by liberals. Liberals claim that the aggrieved cries of right-wingers mask an agenda that threatens minorities, the marginalized and the vulnerable. The tone has grown increasingly hostile; I can’t help but wonder whether some of it is spillover from the tribalism that plagues social media.

Debates about free speech get messy because the term itself is problematic, inviting all sorts of self-serving interpretations. As Canadians, we enjoy a commendable amount of freedom to express ourselves, but no one is completely unfettered. The Criminal Code, the Human Rights Act and libel laws place clear limits on what we can say. (A lengthy interview with Stoner published in Trent’s student newspaper would likely find the editors facing hate-crime charges today.) We routinely censor ourselves when we observe informal conventions of good taste and propriety. It’s disingenuous to claim that freedom of speech means anything goes. But it’s just as disingenuous to pretend that the push, however well intentioned, to make universities “safe spaces” where no one will be offended isn’t also a desire to impose more limits on expression than already exist under the law. Both extremes are slippery slopes.

There’s a lesson for today in how the Stoner crisis at Trent University was resolved. Neither left nor right prevailed. Rather, the university administration saw a teachable moment amid the uproar. Trent had been founded just 10 years earlier on ideals of old-school civility and modern community. The TV show coming to campus was, by its very nature, adversarial and divisive. In short, it was inconsistent with the university’s values. It had been a mistake to consider hosting the show in the first place, so the president rescinded the invitation. His action carried an implicit message for everyone: free speech is as much a privilege as it is a right. It demands civility and goodwill. Without those virtues, it’s just noise. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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