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Globe editorial: Why an unabashed embrace of free speech is the best option for our universities

Universities are complicated places, with important roles that are often in conflict with each other.

On the one hand, their core mission of advancing knowledge requires them to be steadfast in their defence of freedom of expression and inquiry. On the other hand, as a community of scholars, they want students and professors to treat each other with civility and respect, to avoid using abusive language when debating contentious issues and to make everyone feel physically safe and welcome.

The big question for universities, including those in Canada, is how to reconcile those competing requirements. To put it mildly, Canadian universities have lately made a muddle of it – a reality exemplified by the draft of a statement on freedom of expression prepared by the University of British Columbia that delivers a watered-down commitment to free speech.

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At the same time, there are excellent examples of similar statements from American universities that put the emphasis squarely where it belongs – on unhindered free speech, even when that speech is repugnant and offends students or the broader public.

The UBC statements begins by describing the current era as "turbulent," filled with "contentious and divisive politics, economic uncertainty, terrorism, and environmental upheaval."

This is no doubt true. And it is certainly also true that the current turmoil, heightened by the identity politics that are so prevalent at this moment, is being sharply felt at universities everywhere.

But liberals societies have always faced turbulent times like these. They are nothing new – ask anyone who was on a campus in 1968, or in the 1930s during the rise of communism and Nazism. That times are heightened should be taken as normal, not the exception.

The UBC draft statement subsequently asks the right questions, such as, "How can we equip students to tackle future challenges, if they are shielded from demanding, provocative thought?" Or, "How can we create significant breakthroughs if entire lines of inquiry are forbidden?"

But after citing these critical goals, it reaches the startling conclusion that the freedom of expression required to achieve them is not of paramount value.

"Freedom of expression does not trump all other rights," the draft says. "In the university community, freedom of expression can only thrive constructively when accompanied by other rights, including the equality rights of equity, diversity and inclusion."

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The statement raises worries about "deliberate attempts to create a toxic environment." And it makes the claim that "freedom of expression rests on the potential of making positive, constructive contributions to the university community" – an implication that the school can decide which expression is positive and which isn't.

American universities that have wrestled with the issue have come to a different conclusion: that, as the University of Chicago puts it in its own statement on freedom of expression, "concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community."

Yale University is equally blunt. A university "cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect."

Nor can legitimate concerns about those issues "override" a university's central purpose, which is to discover and disseminate knowledge through "unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable."

Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago all make the point that it is not the role of a university to choose which speech is acceptable, or to shield students from ideas that a vocal minority, or even the majority, finds objectionable. All three say that anyone who physically obstructs free speech, no matter how loathed the speaker, could face sanctions.

At the same time, none of the U.S. schools renounces some measure of control. They reserve the right to restrict speech that violates the law, is defamatory, constitutes a genuine threat or is harassment. And they assert their right to control the time and place of a speech or a protest in order to prevent disruptions.

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But they all recognize that their best role in society is to train students to use good speech to defeat bad speech. Yale has committed itself "to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time."

This is the way UBC and other Canadian universities should go. It is not always easy defending free speech, and it is not always pleasant being subjected to ideas that clash with your own, or which come from crude provocateurs who seek only to disrupt.

But universities should remind themselves, and their students, that the free expression of ideas is critical to the goal of creating an educated, progressive society. As the UBC draft says, an unabashed embrace of free speech in all its messiness "means holding open the idea that persuasion is still possible, that thought and evidence and reason can lead to solutions for the many grand challenges we face."

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