Freedom of expression has nothing to do with your right to say what’s on your mind. If it did we could simply drive you to an empty field outside of town and pick you up an hour later. In fact your freedom of expression isn’t about you at all. It’s about me. It’s about my right to hear what’s on your mind, conditional of course on your willingness to share it with me. People who don’t understand that and can’t be disabused of that misunderstanding, people who think it’s their right to interfere with my right to hear what’s on your mind conditional on your willingness to share it with me, people who bethink themselves unsafe if I’m allowed to hear what’s on your mind conditional on your willingness to share it with me, have been with us since before we came down from the trees. And what history has taught us – and it’s taught us this over and over and over again – is that, when push comes to shove, there’s only one thing to be done with such people. In fact that’s precisely what is done with such people. If what we’re committed to is a safe environment for everyone, let’s not let it come to that. 

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots


10 replies

  1. A controversial speaker is a test of the respect for constitutional values of a university administration.

    There are two relevant and somewhat overlapping freedoms in the Canadian constitution: freedom of expression and freedom of association. Freedom of expression is my freedom to say, or sing, or carry a placard saying anything that isn’t defamatory, in an appropriate place and time. (I can’t just walk into someone’s bedroom at 2 am and deliver my favourite speech.) Daytime or early evening hours in a university classroom, hall or open space should be OK, provided that another event is not already scheduled to occupy that place at that time. However, my freedom of expression would be rendered meaningless and negated if I or an event organizer for the event was prohibited from carrying on the event because, as you said, freedom of expression necessarily implies freedom of others to hear that expression.

    Complicating matters is whether the space selected is on private property, the owner of which was unwilling to host the event at that venue. Further complicating matters is if the venue is “vested with the public interest”, such as a space in front of a legislature or a space in a publicly funded university. That is different from a space in a commercial shopping mall.

    Freedom of association is less clearly defined, but might include freedom to create a group of people who want to associate for the purpose of hearing a particular speaker or type of speakers at a particular event.

    Putting all this together, it may be held an infringement of two constitutional rights if a university refused to host a speech event at an otherwise unoccupied location or venue for professed reasons of “safety” when (i) no one who might feel unsafe is compelled to attend, (ii) anyone who feels unsafe during the speech can leave, and (iii) the speaker does not advocate an overthrow of the government or otherwise violent action. If a mob of protesters wants to disrupt the event that disruption is an infringement of constitutional rights, and should be policed and prevented by the university.


  2. You should get fired 🫶


  3. “In fact your freedom of expression isn’t about you at all. It’s about me.”

    Then why can’t you drive out to the figurative field you mentioned, invite the public, and listen to the speaker there? That would nullify any real concerns about discourse in the commons. This isn’t about infringement of “free expression”, because the speaker isn’t facing judicial consequence for their verbal opinion. Rather, this is about the right of an institution to decline a speaker on their property whose subjective opinion may disenfranchise a portion of their stakeholders (some of whom have the trauma of lived experience).

    I want to ask you a sincere question, and it isn’t meant to be trite or flip. I am just an interested community shlub, long distanced from academia. Would you support a presentation from a holocaust revisionist, or proponent of white ethno-nationalism, to freely express on campus?

    My take away is that your perspective & arguments could easily be a defense of those positions as well. I am not trying some reductio ad absurdum sophistry to try and discredit your supposition. I have an honest, intellectual curiosity. Please respond to my question if you have the time.


    • Frater Tham asks the obvious question. Would I support a campus visit from a Holocaust revisionist? Funny you should ask. We have a series of dinner parties we call Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. And our first guest – we figured go big or go home – was Holocaust denier Monika Schafer. So yes, I WOULD support such a presentation on campus, provided the speaker was knowledgeable and articulate and engaging. Apart from that, where do I draw the line? At two places. 1) Silliness, as distinct from important, and 2) incitement. Flat Earther’s are silly. But Holocaust denial does not, in and of itself, incite.


      • So you have a holocaust denier to dinner as a curiosity and diversion? I can understand the frisson that an academic would have casually debating an individual like that as an intellectual challenge. But, you have the benefit of experience and discernment to understand when a holocaust revisionist’s opinion and arguments are specious, and contrary to the historical record. You state that it is better if the speaker is knowledgeable and articulate and engaging. Wouldn’t that be more dangerous to developing minds, lacking experience and discernment, to separate fact from merely persuasive rhetoric? At a small gathering you could easily brush off a revisionist’s demagoguery, while at a public forum less educated & younger individuals could be persuaded to their fringe position.


      • Frater Tham supposes we had Schafer to dinner for mere curiosity and diversion. Not so. Holocaust denial is neither. It’s an important historical claim. I do not treat my students as lacking sufficient discernment to separate fact from persuasive rhetoric. Otherwise I’d have to ban MYSELF from presuming to teach them. The problem is not presuming to KNOW the truth. It’s presuming to IMPOSE that knowledge on others.


      • I saw Frater Tham walking into that one.

        Denying the historicity of the Holocaust (“Holocaust denial”) in public in a manner that willfully promotes antisemitism appears to violate Sec. 318 of the Criminal Code of Canada, so it would have to be a private meeting unless you wanted to test the law as well as hear the speaker. But as Andrew has said elsewhere, the law is whatever a judge says it is.

        Someone who said, “I can show that some inaccuracies have grown up around the Holocaust in that some eyewitnesses to events can be shown not to have been incarcerated in the places the events are known to have happened but that is no reason to hate Jews as Jews”, — which I believe sincerely may be a true statement as I read it in a credible published book, I’m not being a troll — ought not to be found guilty of a crime. That’s in my humble opinion as a layman who believes no topic should be off limits. I’m not a fan of hate-speech laws but people arguing that speakers should be punished for hate speech or Holocaust denial need to be aware of what our laws actually prohibit (Secs 318 and 319).

        But in relation to Andrew’s constitutional views, academics have argued despairingly (but incorrectly?) that Canadian public university campuses are “Charter-free zones” as they are not instruments of the state. They are not obligated by the Charter to refrain from cancelling controversial speeches or protecting (with suitable security) controversial speakers. Nor must they punish free-lance mobs of hecklers who shut down a speech, even if their own academic codes say they will. In the United States, the Supreme Court has held that First Amendment obligations do extend to government-funded educational institutions like state universities but not to purely private colleges like Harvard and the lot. The “Chicago Principles” argue that private schools should feel obligated to extend that freedom as a matter of academic policy. Schools that do so, like University of North Carolina did just recently, should be applauded. But they have to want to live up to them if the Constitution doesn’t make them.

        Unfortunately there seems more occasion for condemnation than applause these days.


      • I’ve never understood – in fact I’ve already blogged about this – how Holocaust denial is hate speech. Hate speech requires detestation and/or vilification. But how does Holocaust denial detest and/or vilify Jews? Most Egyptologists are now convinced the Exodus never happened. Does that make them anti-Israelite? So what am I missing?


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