Chris Selley: What is so hard about supporting free speech?

By trying to shut down a non-existent rally, campus activists gave an almost non-existent political party more publicity than it could have dreamed of

Au Canada anglais comme au Québec, la liberté de parole est menacée par la bien-pensance

The most widely popular policy at the Conservative leadership convention in May might have been Andrew Scheer’s promise to defund universities that don’t protect free speech. The idea had many practical and philosophical flaws — if you mistrust universities to protect free speech, you should absolutely mistrust governments to do the same — but it at least seemed like an idea that could sustain Conservative troops in opposition.
Perhaps not.
Last week, headlines proclaimed that the University of Toronto had “barred” from campus a right-wing “group” calling itself the Canadian Nationalist Party, which was planning to hold a rally there despite objections from activists. Asked if this violated the hypothetical Conservative policy, Team Scheer said no. “I respect the right for universities to determine which outside groups they give a platform to,” he told the National Post.
Quite right. In fact, according to U of T, the “party” — which may or may not be one fellow with a website — hadn’t even contacted the university about it. If some random Facebook user announces “Rager at Selley’s Saturday Night,” I have no obligation to stock the bar.
But in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, a Scheer spokesperson went further. Scheer would work with universities “to prevent loopholes for events that risk violating Canadian law,” CBC reported. “(Scheer) is committed to working with the universities to ensure that any policy he brings forward does not become a platform for hate speech,” said the spokesperson.
Sorry, no. That’s hopeless. Any event can be “a platform for hate speech,” if an organizer or attendee decides to make it one. The key, within reason, is that they be given the chance. Team Scheer is all but explicitly endorsing prior restraint: Person X or Group Y might be too dangerous, too likely to utter “hate speech,” for a university to vouchsafe.
As soon as you endorse that idea over a universal defence of free speech up to some reasonable definable threshold — the Criminal Code, say — you’re emboldening precisely the censors Scheer claims to want to take on. Are BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week prima facie hate speech? Is the idea of a superior white race or male gender prima facie hate speech? People disagree; universities are supposed to be free venues for those disagreements.
Meanwhile, Scheer seems to have missed an opportunity to weigh in on a whopper of a free speech dereliction at Ryerson University last week. Citing an inability “to provide the necessary level of public safety for the event to go forward, particularly given the recent events in Charlottesville,” the Toronto university cancelled a discussion concerning … er … “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses.” Activists had vowed to shut down the event; they managed it without even having to close their laptops. Ryerson hasn’t formally been a university for long. A politician who (for better or worse) thinks campus free speech is his business might reasonably propose it shouldn’t be going forward.
This was no white supremacist rally. The participants certainly posed no security threat: three university professors and a clinical psychologist. It was a target because they included University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, the all-purpose bogeyman of the campus left, and Faith Goldy, the now-former Rebel Media personality who seemed far too comfortable among the white supremacists in Charlottesville.
A lot of people think Peterson is a transphobic jerk. A lot of people think Goldy is an Islamophobic ghoul. They are, empirically, not hate criminals; they require no “loophole” to express their ideas in public in Canada.
The irony, as ever, is that the “no-platform” crowd gave the Ryerson event far more exposure than it would otherwise have received (while helpfully proving its premise). It was even more absurd at U of T: infinitely more people have heard of the Canadian Nationalist Party today than before campus activists decided they would shut down its imaginary rally.
On Sunday in Quebec City, attempts to stop anti-Islam group La Meute from marching led to violent conflict between protesters and police and journalists. “Pushed down stairs and camera smashed,” Global News reporter Mike Armstrong tweeted. “And the group we were supposed to be covering hasn’t even stepped out of the parking garage.”
These were Black Bloc losers. They’re no reflection on peaceful activists who came out to confront ideas they found repugnant with their own — as they should. But they do reflect badly on the larger idea of shutting down speech instead of confronting it — if not as a moral or intellectual proposition then as a practical one. By the end of the day, after many hours penned up in that garage, it was La Meute who managed to hold a peaceful, civilized march.

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