On October 12, the UBC Free Speech Club put the concept of free speech itself up for debate with an event titled “Questioning Free Speech.”
The event featured three professors who discussed the roles, limits and ramifications of the concept. In particular, the first two analyzed how language can become harmful and how free speech can unequivocally benefit the privileged. The third one argued in favour of a libertarian approach that supports the free exchange of ideas.
After their presentations, students broke off into groups overseen by moderators to discuss the topics of the night.
“We thought it would be funny essentially to not be hypocritical about our support of free speech, because if you support free speech, then even free speech itself has to be up for debate,” said Jordan Schroeder, the president of the Free Speech Club. “Maybe the purpose of the event wasn’t to change people’s minds, but definitely to expose everybody to the other side.”
Words, language and violence
The first presenter was sociology Professor Dr. Rima Wilkes, whose speech was organized around the questions of whether words can be considered violence.
She said that a week before she was invited to the event, she received a derogatory email from an anonymous source who was angry about Wilkes’s comments in an article about the Free Speech Club. In the email, she was called a “leftist-marxist ideologue” who was undeserving of her academic position, [the source’s] tax dollars and “the sacrifice of his family in defence of our freedoms.”
“I did not respond because I read this and felt that this wasn’t about engagement or an exchange or ideas — this was about attack,” she said.
Though she did not consider the email to be violent, she emphasized that she felt “kind of crappy” after reading it and then encouraged people to avoid trying to cause others pain when discussing sensitive topics. Wilkes later asked the audience to consider the difference between discussion and debate.
“[Debate is] about winning, and I’m not interested in that,” she said. “I just don’t find that to be the most constructive way of moving forward.
“Discussion – on the other hand — is about process and growth, and how we think about the question of language and violence will change dramatically if it’s a question of discussion rather than a question of debate.”
She encouraged the audience to avoid shaming, move beyond a confrontational approach to discussing issues and be cautious of smugness and dogmatism.
How free speech benefits the privileged
The next speaker was Dr. Mark Harris, a visiting GRSJ professor, who explored how free speech benefits some groups more than others due to the influence of power and privilege.
He cited the example of Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who was “blackballed” after he began kneeling in protest against racism and police brutality during the national anthem at NFL games.
"Colin Kaepernick, by virtue of colour and race, was silenced,” said Harris. “His freedom of speech was quelled because of his race. It was characterized as defamatory, as not being effectively or not being sufficiently respectful towards the American flag and the anthem.”
Likewise, Harris also argued that the abuse of freedom of speech can, in some contexts, constitute violence. He used the n-word as an example.
“It’s a word that’s steeped in and has meaning in centuries of violence and oppression,” he said. “I didn’t comprehend that. I came from Australia and didn’t understand the depth and enormity until I was taken aside by some African-American professors who said ‘you can’t say that. You don’t know that means. It’s like someone slapping you in the face.’”
His speech also noted that absolute freedom of speech does not exist in Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that the rights and freedoms laid out in the charter are subject to reasonable limits.
When taking questions from the audience, one student asked Harris to what extent culture played a role in affecting Indigenous communities. In particular, the student compared the Jewish culture he grew up in — which he said places an emphasis on refusing to adopt a victimhood mentality toward the Holocaust — to Indigenous cultures, which he argued were stuck in that mentality.
In response, Harris disagreed and argued that the long-term effects of transgenerational trauma have made it more difficult for Indigenous communities to heal from historical injustices.
“The pathways to education have been blocked [and] the pathways to having a home have been blocked for First Nations communities,” he said.
Wilkes, who said that she has relatives that died in the Holocaust, also spoke up after Harris and argued that the difference between colonialism and the Holocaust is that colonialism occurred over multiple generations. This aspect thus makes it harder for future generations of the Indigenous community to recover.
Defending the open exchange of ideas
The final speaker was political science Professor Dr.Paul Quirk, who argued in favoured of a libertarian approach to free speech.
He praised the American doctrine which claims that free speech should only be interfered with if there’s a clear and present danger from it, but he also stated that future dangers could warrant interference too. This approach does not censor speech if it’s offensive or hurts people’s feelings.
“Feelings can be quite arbitrary, irrational, unwarranted,” he said. “If we’re responsible for any feeling that someone might have as a result of what we might say, we’re gonna have a hard time being able to say anything because the ways in which people might react is sufficiently open ended.”
Quirk also talked a lot about what he saw as the infringement of both left-wing and right-wing free speech on university campuses across Canada and America.
He cited two examples from former universities he worked at — a conservative professor from Marquette University who was fired over a “blog post,” and a professor going through the appointment process at the University of Illinois who was ultimately not hired after he made a number of aggressively pro-Palestinian tweets “that said things like ‘I hope the Palestinians drive the Israelis into the sea.’”
In response, Quirk suggested that universities should be a place where a student can hear the entire range of debates a cross the political spectrum.
“University should be a place where somewhat more extreme positions [that] get a serious hearing in the political system can be considered because the university’s a place to learn,” he said. “Universities have been way short of that in their ability and willingness to protect speech on campus.”