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May 1, 2017 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Dear Mr James…

The following article is written in response to an opinion piece, “Freedom of Speech”, which was published online only on April 20.


Okay, I took the bait. Despite the possibility that your opinion piece “Freedom of Speech” (April 20, 2017) was actually satirical, I read it as a serious proposition and what follows is a serious response.

“Here is the crux of my argument: speech should be allowed on campus if it is factually correct, and if it serves the purpose as a societal conscience.”

Alright, but what’s “factual correctness”?

Mainstream definition lacking, I was enlightened by the scholarly Urban Dictionary which defined it as “a completely and utterly accurate statement… above dispute or debate.” Pop quiz: How much speech on campus can be said to be “factually correct”, according to that definition?

At a guess: not a lot. Welp.

Cue some context. Modern liberal education is driven by a combination of the Socratic “examined life” and Mill’s metaphorical “marketplace of ideas.” University is a place of learning and discussion, a communal debating chamber necessarily entailing a friction of ideas, ideals, and identities.

Speech is obviously important in the service of conversation and debate, to tease out different experiences we have, meanings we draw from them, and how they compare with broader society. The “critic and conscience of society” is only enabled through the freedom to speak in a critical, but considered, fashion.

“I will put aside the claims that free speech in… universities is being threatened. This claim is baseless, and as someone who works and studies within the university environment I have never seen this exist.”

Yeah, well, that’s just like, your opinion, man. Or, perhaps, you’re in a confirmation bias bubble. Your conclusion is heavily dependent on what your beliefs are, and the environment you seek to articulate them in, as to whether your free speech, as opposed to another’s, is under threat. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” right?

While I haven’t the word space to build a “factually correct” case for the existence of free speech woes at Victoria, there’s a broader issue at stake. The problem with shutting down discussion is that those silenced go underground to private discussion and thought. By not exposing opinions to criticism, they become entrenched because they aren’t challenged.

Before you mistake my point and lampoon me for being an apartheid supporter or worse, here’s the crux of my argument: the principle behind, and exercise of, the freedom of speech is not, and should not be, dependent on factual correctness; otherwise it cannot serve its purpose as a societal conscience.

Free speech balances its freedom to discuss with the responsibilities it necessarily entails: that ideas will always be subject to robust criticism instead of an unchallenged free-for-all. Perhaps that was your point, that free speech needs responsible exercise and accountability.

But you missed the mark. To adhere to your argument takes the real out of reality and the difference out of diversity that defines humanity. The challenge is to meet those differences we find impermissible or wrong and prudently draw conversation boundaries without defeating the purpose of the university and our studentship.


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