A person with their lips closed. Beside them is a speech bubble with random characters
Photo illustration: Izabella Balcerzak

What does ‘free speech’ really mean on campus?

In News /

By Sarah Krichel and Jacob Dubé

Everybody loves to use their right to free speech as a defence when it comes to controversial topics, and everyone has the right to express their opinions in a public setting for all to hear. But does that mean people can’t justifiably get offended when someone says something shitty? And does that mean we can say anything we want without fear of repercussions? Does someone else’s free speech impede on our own?

Look. No one actually knows what this shit means.

Online and on campus, free speech and hate speech have been debated on every side of every argument, ever. Last school year, the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) voted against creating a Men’s Issues Awareness Society because they were concerned it would lead to oppressive discourse. And last month, Ezra Levant, who founded the controversial publication The Rebel, gave a talk at Ryerson about “campus culture” while protesters stood outside, posters in hand, chanting, “Hey hey, ho  ho, your racist shit has got to go.”

Free speech and hate speech already have legal definitions, but people seem to be deciding on definitions for themselves. There’s currently no real consensus that everybody can use and abide by and, as a result, no proper way to minimize harm.

On Sept. 28, 2016, Toronto Against Abortion (TAA), a pro-life advocacy group, showed up on campus with graphic photos of aborted fetuses. They have made recurring appearances ever since and the red-saturated images are usually large enough to be seen from the other side of the street. Counter-protesters started showing up with larger signs to cover the images and express support for those disturbed by the pro-lifers.

In response to the triggering photos in the middle of campus, equity centre members created the Ryerson Reproductive Justice Collective (RRJC) on Nov. 18 and published a list of demands. The demands included banning pro-life posters on campus and recognizing that anti-choice ideology is a form of violence.

TAA said having a team that tackles university campus advocacy is “necessary” to exhibit the supposed realities of abortion. Meanwhile, the RSU and the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) have taken a pro-choice stance.

The current method of protesting has been labelled as a form of violence and hate speech, according to RRJC members, because students are being triggered by the graphic images.

But is it hate speech?

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes, “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication,” as a fundamental freedom. This means that the charter protects the dissemination of opinions and information—the goal being that everyone talks through their issues and works towards a solution. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

Jim Turk, director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, said that although some types of discourse can be hateful, the laws surrounding hate speech are pretty strict.

“The term ‘hate speech’ is used very loosely. If someone is charged with hate speech and it goes to court, the Supreme Court has set out certain tests as to what constitutes hate speech,” he said. “And to qualify for hate speech it has to be a really high bar.”

According to Turk, to qualify as hate speech, a person would have to advocate for violence against a specific race, religion or lifestyle, considering them “subhuman” and “not worthy of living.”

“The way to deal with them is just to expose the idiocy of their positions,” Turk said. “By suppressing them, by having them driven off campus, in some ways all you do is make a martyr of them.”

Ryerson’s executive board decided that while they might disagree with some of the views shared on campus, they’re not in a position to take sides. During a roundtable discussion with RRJC members on Jan. 23, Ryerson’s vice-provost students Heather Lane Vetere told the group the university had to remain a place where opinions can be held, instead of having opinions itself. She also cited past lawsuits that didn’t work in a university’s favour.

In 2014, a provincial court ruled against the University of Calgary for charging a group of pro-life students with academic misconduct. The university heard complaints from students about pro-life protesters on campus, and decided to take action. They ordered the protesters to point their signs towards a wall. If someone walking by decided they wanted to look, they were able to—but this way anybody who would be negatively affected by seeing the images wouldn’t have to. When the protesters refused, the university found them guilty of academic misconduct and they were penalized. So they sued. And won. The school was ordered to listen to their appeal.

“The line is really the law,” Lane Vetere said. “In this case, we have no legal right to tell anyone that they cannot speak, protest, etc. on a public street when doing so is not against the law, no matter how offensive or objectionable the message or the method of delivering the message might be.”

Even if the university really wanted to do something about upsetting images on campus, it couldn’t. Gould and Victoria streets are public property, and though the school and the RSU have looked into getting stewardship rights, they have no control over the space or what gets said there.

A lot of controversial opinions end up falling under the freedom of expression umbrella. People can say whatever they want­­—to a certain extent. But should they?

Some opinions can end up hurting people, and opposing views can get to a point where a violent discourse is happening far too often. One RRJC member told The Eyeopener in a previous interview that they were told by a protester that they “should be raped.”

Camryn Harlick, incoming vice-president equity for the RSU, said that the issue is not that TAA is on campus. “You can have whatever view you want [and] you can express your views,” they said. “I think [mine] and a lot of RRJC’s members’ issue is the signs.”

Harlick said despite the group’s right to share their opinions, the signs add a discriminatory and harmful tone to the conversation. “I’m really not buying the free speech argument as a scapegoat to be discriminatory,” they said. “Free speech is totally valid and important. I’m not negating that. But it’s often used as an excuse.”

Blaise Alleyne, a volunteer for TAA, said the group uses vetting and training processes for their volunteers to ensure they know how to conduct a productive conversation and deescalate a situation if need be. He added that the volunteers they select to bring to campuses are people “motivated by love for women who had abortions and for children being killed by abortions.”

Although it’s legal and there’s effort on both ends, some are going through emotional trauma.

For now, scheduling times or having designated spaces for controversial protests to take place isn’t completely feasible, according to Tamara Jones, current vice-president equity. She added that a possible step to take is questioning the limitations of what constitutes  “hate speech” and seeing how the RSU and the university can help students by questioning governmental policy.

The truth is, there really is no answer.

“There might not even be a solution at the end of the day. There might not be anything we can do,” Harlick said. “But [we can make] sure students [who are being triggered] feel like they’re being heard [and make sure] there are resources for them to access.”

Even though people’s voices are being heard, there has to be a way to have conversations where different perspectives are welcome and real progress can be made. People will inevitably disagree with each other, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t listen to each other.

“The importance of free expression is for people to hear and think for themselves, and somebody doesn’t decide what they’re entitled to hear,” Turk said. “If I stop you from speaking then I’m also stopping people from hearing what you might have to say.”

So please, go get into an argument. You can even yell a little. Just don’t be a dick about it.

Leave a Comment