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Over the past year, universities have cancelled controversial talks before they’ve begun, mobs have shouted down provocative speakers after they’ve started, and students have faced disciplinary actions for speaking rudely or stupidly. Culture police have examined artworks for signs of cultural appropriation and censured tasteless Halloween costumes.
Along with overt censorship, political movements have warped language to limit discussion. Disagreeable ideas are now called violent. Free speech is viewed as an expression of white supremacy and property of the fascist right. Across the political spectrum, off-key speech is defended selectively, depending on the politics of the person speaking.
Any university wishing to preserve the principles of free speech – I’m thinking of Wilfrid Laurier University, currently under scrutiny for policing speech – must consider the findings of the Woodward Report.
Published in 1975 in response to free speech crises at Yale University, the Woodward Report provides a principled approach for how universities can nurture free speech on campus.
The report begins by placing free speech at the centre of intellectual life. Free speech provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox and acts as a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts.
The right to express oneself is so vital to the university’s work, the report’s authors write, that it may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression. As such, every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression.
University leaders have a special role in safeguarding free speech and thought. They must remain neutral advocates for free speech and work to ensure the university remains accessible as a platform for everybody. Administrators may work behind the scenes to dissuade student groups from inviting certain speakers, but once an event is scheduled, the university must ensure the event runs without disruption.
To safeguard freedom, universities must educate students on the principles of free and open discussion. They must teach students that they cannot attack a person whose views they find abhorrent or shut down university operations to prevent speech they don’t like.
The report is clear about how to deal with people who interfere with the university’s purpose: suspend them or expel them.
This punishment sounds harsh until you’re the one silenced.
None of the stipulations against interference with speech prevents students from disputing bad ideas. Students may picket controversial speakers, write opinions and respond with speech of their own. But, as the authors of the Woodward Report state, blocking lawful speech can never be justified on such grounds as that the speech or the speaker is deemed irresponsible, offensive, unscholarly, or untrue.
Thought, speech and expression must be free so that we may freely understand the world as it is and freely determine the course of our individual lives. Those who would control speech make themselves the arbiters of truth for all.
If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free. It will be subordinated to other values that we believe to be of lower priority in a university.
Universities must re-educate themselves on why free expression matters and why universities must remain spaces of free expression.
Such an exercise should happen at the beginning of each term, in the same way high schools sing the national anthem at the beginning of each school day – to remind ourselves of our commitment to freedom.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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