Should Universities “Deplatform” Speakers?

Irfan Chaudhry

The equity, diversity and human rights specialist and MacEwan University lecturer says yes.

In an age of increasing social and political polarization, universities are becoming more integral in ensuring that academic debates and discourse on contentious issues take place. Recent examples of right-leaning pundits being protested and in some cases forcibly removed from Canadian campuses shed light on how this issue needs to be considered more thoughtfully. A university’s removing or banning someone for saying something people disagree with does not evoke the spirit of dialogue that universities are meant to encourage. In fact, it counters the very foundational premise they are built on—academic freedom.

In the words of the Canadian Association of University Teachers: “Academic freedom includes the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom to teach and discuss; freedom to carry out research and disseminate and publish the results thereof; freedom to produce and perform creative works; freedom to engage in service; freedom to express one’s opinion about the institution, its administration and the system in which one works; freedom to acquire, preserve and provide access to documentary material in all formats; and freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies.”

A university that “deplatforms” a speaker due to controversial ideas would certainly be violating this understanding of academic freedom. If an invited speaker, for example, has academic and professional credentials, and their work has gone through various peer-review processes, they have earned their right to academic freedom.

If, however, an invited speaker has limited or no academic or professional credentials, and their work hasn’t undergone rigorous peer review, a university may legitimately deplatform them, especially if that speaker incites hatred towards an identified group as protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act or s. 318–320 of the Canadian Criminal Code—our hate speech laws. While some might argue that a university deplatforming anyspeaker constitutes an overreaction, “deplatforming” must be considered in a broader sense. It could include an institution refusing a platform for a speaker that indirectly incites hatred towards an identifiable group. It could mean the host institution challenges the speakers’ presence and ideas in the spirit of academic discourse and dialogue. Members of an institution might host a competing event at the same time and place, thus providing a space for multiple sides of a perspective to be discussed.

While universities can enact policies (such as an adherence to the Chicago Principles) to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression, our most important demographic—students—will lead the way. Typically it’s students who mobilize, rally, protest and speak up (as they should) when they feel a platform is being given to someone undeservedly.

 

Michael Kennedy

The lead author and producer of Canada’s Campus Freedom Index says no.

Deplatforming—the act of disinviting or cancelling a lecturer due to their beliefs—is entirely antithetical to the mission and purpose of higher education. For this reason, the practice has no place on a university campus.

Platforms enable discourse to confront, expose and refute those who hold wrong, offensive or hurtful views. In 2007 former president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University. Many called for the event’s cancellation; how could a reputable institution invite someone who incited genocide, whose government violates human rights? But in the question and answer session, students challenged Ahmadinejad to address charges that Iran targets, arrests and executes homosexuals. “We don’t have homosexuals in Iran,” replied Ahmadinejad. The audience erupted into laughter. Rather than being duped, as deplatformers warned, the audience mocked and ultimately discredited Ahmadinejad.

Deplatforming assumes that audiences, especially young adults pursuing higher education, are too intellectually fragile to think critically, analyze what they hear and come to their own conclusions. Due to the failures of our public education system, many students indeed enter university lacking the critical-thinking and analytical skills needed to engage with the free exchange of ideas. But the solution isn’t deplatforming. Rather, universities should proactively equip students to face controversial subjects. A crash course on intellectual debate and critical analysis should be part of orientation week, alongside workshops on harassment and sexual assault. This way, students can be prepared from the outset to participate in a robust free exchange of ideas—a prerequisite to learning.

The purpose of higher education is to lay out the path by which young people mature into intelligent, productive adults. This involves challenging assumptions, considering diverse perspectives and listening to other views. Most importantly, it demands an ability to rethink one’s own assumptions and challenge sacred ideas. This is best facilitated by exposing students to as many controversial and unconventional platforms as possible—not by sheltering them from any. Processing intellectual discomfort is an intrinsic element of a liberal arts education. If students do not hone and master these skills in university, our universities are failing in their most foundational mission: to produce informed, critical, aware and rigorous thinkers who can improve our world through open and vigorous debate.

If public universities fail at this task, taxpayers and their elected representatives must hold them accountable, by removing them from the public system or imposing financial penalties. After all, the students of today are future scientists, teachers, thought leaders and legislators who must be prepared to daily confront intellectual discomfort in their pursuit of a freer, fairer and more prosperous world.

 

Irfan Chaudhry responds to Michael Kennedy

In the university environment, academic rigour and peer review highlight the importance of ensuring that the information being shared is well researched, well reviewed and well established. These standards are integral to the reputation of the university. When universities host non-academic speakers, the peer-review and academic standard—which establishes the foundation of earned and trusted knowledge—holds little relevance. If a student group, department or faculty member choose to invite a non-academic speaker who wears a “confrontational” label, this speaker’s legitimacy may fairly be challenged. But it’s not up to the university to deplatform them. This direction will be sent loud and clear from those who make up the university (especially students) and the surrounding community.

What often gets lost in these types of discussions is the focus of the controversy. People care primarily about the speaker’s words and the impact they have on targeted communities. When someone is invited to share a perspective that is overtly or covertly hateful, even if it doesn’t hit the threshold of hate speech, a quality-assurance role is necessary. Take, for instance, the 2018 invitation and subsequent cancellation of an event at Wilfrid Laurier University, where Faith Goldy was invited to speak. Goldy—who has a track record of anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, xenophobic sentiment and who has also appeared on numerous alt-right and neo-Nazi social media platforms—has zero academic authority to speak on issues related to immigration. Although she was invited to speak by a student at the university, critical-thinking, analytical and intelligent young adults were keenly aware that she had no merit to discuss the topic she was invited to speak about. The university community responded. Moments before she was about to go on, someone pulled a fire alarm, essentially cancelling the event.

It can be inferred that because this happened moments before the event was to start, WLU took no measures to deplatform this speaker, and, in fact, followed one of the guiding conventions of the Chicago Principles as it relates to freedom of expression on university campuses: “The university’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the university community, not for the university as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves.”

The Chicago Principles also instruct that “members of the university community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus… [but] they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

While pulling a fire alarm moments before a speaker is about to go on certainly violates this principle, a university is somewhat limited to know how the university community will contest polarizing views expressed on campus. As a result, it is unrealistic and unreasonable to punish a university by way of a fine or another arbitrary imposition when a speaker is “deplatformed” in a manner such as this.

To do so would also create an unnecessary layer of enforcement and oversight, which in turn would raise questions about the legitimacy of freedom of speech principles if only certain perceived violations were penalized. It would be difficult to know whether and how a government would impose fines on post-secondary institutions in the future. Everyone can have a different opinion about which speakers are controversial.

In addition, the fines being proposed by lobby groups are heavy-handed. For example, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) submitted a proposal to Alberta’s Legislative Assembly in May 2019. It requests that if, upon an investigation (by whom?), the government finds that a university deplatformed a speaker, the Minister of Advanced Education can levy a fine of up to $50,000 for a first offence and up to $100,000 for subsequent ones. These amounts would speak more to a government trying to control the message rather than empower free inquiry. This process would also be counterintuitive to a government that claims to be committed to eliminating “red tape.” The JCCF proposal is flat-out ridiculous.

As Michael Kennedy stated in his opener, “The purpose of higher education is to lay out the path by which young people mature into intelligent, productive adults.” I could not agree more. How young people get there, how they choose to engage and how they choose to respond in the face of harmful and hateful content is at their discretion. Universities have a role to play in free and open inquiry. They should not intervene, dictate or encourage a specific response from their community members, as it is not the role of institutions to make these judgments.

Fines would speak more to a government trying to control the message rather than empower free inquiry.

 

Michael Kennedy responds to Irfan Chaudhry

Chaudhry proposes an extraordinary two-pronged litmus test to “legitimately” deplatform a speaker. The first prong: peer review. A campus lecture is one of the most democratic forms of peer review, allowing students, faculty and community members to hear a speaker out, question them and draw their own conclusions about what’s true and what’s false. The keenest students and faculty can then do further research and publish a more thorough response to the lecturer in campus journals or the student and local newspapers.

Making academic peer review a prerequisite to sharing ideas on campus would exclude some of the most anticipated and engaging lectures. Ahmadinejad’s views on the existence of homosexuality in Iran weren’t peer reviewed. Nevertheless there was an inherent value in letting him speak and be subject to scrutiny.

Under Mr. Chaudhry’s litmus test, no politician could speak at an Alberta university—but politicians participating in campus lectures or panels is of value to university communities. Indeed, ivory towers can benefit from an injection of practical experience, and we all benefit from letting falsehoods be uttered in public forums, where they can be exposed and discredited in front of the community. By Mr. Chaudhry’s test, Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai could not share her inspirational story on campus, because personal experiences aren’t subjected to peer review.

Mr. Chaudhry’s second prong is hate speech as defined by the Criminal Code and Alberta’s Human Rights Act. In the context of modern deplatforming, this test is useless. The number of lasting hate speech convictions under both the Criminal Code and the Alberta Human Rights Act can be counted on one hand. The threshold for getting a lasting conviction is very high. The Alberta Human Rights Commission dismissed complaints of hate speech levied against the Western Standard when it published the infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons depicting Muhammad. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench overturned a charge of hate speech by the AHRC against Reverend Stephen Boissoin, after a letter he wrote to the Red Deer Advocatedecried anyone who “supports the homosexual machine that has been mercilessly gaining ground in our society since the 1960s.”

Contrast these failed hate-speech charges with present-day incidents of deplatforming. Earlier this year, ex-Muslim and Atheist Republic founder Armin Navabi was disinvited from speaking at Mount Royal University. MRU cited the Christchurch shooting as the reason. They didn’t accuse Navabi of hate speech, and he has never been convicted of hate speech under Canadian law. Journalist and politician Faith Goldy along with Jordan Peterson, Gad Saad and Oren Amitay were disinvited from a panel discussion at Ryerson University titled, ironically, “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses.” None have been convicted of hate speech. Ryerson didn’t accuse them of hate speech; it cited “recent events” and “campus safety” following the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Perhaps Mr. Chaudhry means that universities should themselves decide whether potential speakers have engaged in “hate speech.” Accusations of hate speech are far more common than convictions—particularly on campuses, many of which have created their own definitions of hate speech that extend the scope far beyond the term’s legal and constitutional parameters (see campusfreedomindex.ca). In the aforementioned cases, most of the speakers were accused by students, faculty, equity/diversity officers or outside observers of promoting hate. But that’s very different from a conviction. If accusations of hate speech can warrant deplatforming, then the frequency of deplatformings and the scope of extra-judicial hate speech definitions will only rise.

Setting aside the practical dis-advantages to Mr. Chaudhry’s litmus test: If there should be a safe space anywhere in society for hate speech (and that’s a big if), universities might be that place. Consider that Mein Kampf can be obtained by any university student or faculty member in Alberta through their school’s library. Why? As the old saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A study of Hitler’s manifesto is essential to understanding how societies can dangerously stray from basic human decency and goodness, so as to avoid being led astray again. Equipped with the intellectual resiliency required of any academic pursuit, scholars are the best-trained agents of society to read and assess hate speech. Likewise they are equally capable of listening to it without being brainwashed to believe it.

Fortunately, the Alberta government has not adhered itself to Mr. Chaudhry’s litmus test. Requiring universities to uphold free expression will substantially improve the state of free speech at public universities, and, given the hundreds of millions of dollars these schools receive from taxpayers every year, is entirely justified and necessary.

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