The Slippery Slope of Suppressing Speech

By July 30, 2008

An opinion piece in the London Free Press (London, Ontario) draws on America’s First Amendment jurisprudence to remind universities in Canada how important free speech is to academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. The expansion of speech regulation on Canadian university campuses serves as a reminder of the dangers of allowing the suppression of political speech. Suppressing speech can easily lead to more suppression of speech, and, eventually, a closed-minded arrogance. (While FIRE does not handle cases in Canada, we do watch free expression developments there with interest.)

Like many U.S. universities, Canadian universities commonly have speech codes proscribing speech that is offensive to particular groups, such as women, and ethnic, religious and racial minorities. Recently, the Canadian Federation of Students took an even more ominous step down the road of speech-proscription and urged student unions across the country to deny "anti-choice" groups access to student resources and campus space.

By way of explanation, the London Free Press columnist quoted a student supporter who enacted the new policy on her campus. "The way that [anti-abortion students] speak about women who decide to have abortions is demoralizing . . . Is this an issue of free speech? No, this is an issue of women’s rights." Apparently, this student believes that free speech only covers speech she and the Canadian Federation of Students find inoffensive.

This policy and its underlying rationale illustrate two pernicious consequences of allowing the suppression of speech. First, this policy was passed by university students, which shows that when young people come of age in a society that openly endorses censorship, as Canada does, those young people will be more likely to view censorship as an acceptable response to encountering ideas they find offensive. There are few things more dangerous for the development of knowledge and freedom of thought than a whole generation of citizens who are perfectly comfortable suppressing political speech they find offensive.

Second, allowing the suppression of politicized speech tends to lead to the suppression of more speech. The speech codes on campus universities in Canada, like those in the U.S., started by censoring speech perceived as derogatory to protected groups. That suppression has now spread to speech that is not a direct offense to a protected group, but only arguably against the interests of the protected group. The Canadian Federation of Students has declared anti-abortion speech to be harmful to women and accordingly recommended its suppression. But coming to the conclusion that anti-abortion speech is anti-woman assumes an answer to other, highly contested moral questionswhen individual human life begins, and when human life should be legally protected from termination. Having set this precedent, students can now easily move on to suppress other controversial political ideas, such as speech opposing an equal pay act, or state-provided daycare, and so on, if they deem it against the interests of protected groups. As should be readily apparent, such censorship would hardly be guaranteed to affect only those on the political "right."

This intellectual hubris does not benefit the development of knowledge, and unfortunately for Canadian students, Canada does not have an equivalent of the First Amendment to serve as a brake on their inclination to proscribe offensive speech. (Canada’s constitution does mention freedom of speech, but this protection has been interpreted very differently from the First Amendment.) The London Free Press columnist quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Holmes on why opening the door to the suppression of speech is such a bad idea, particularly in a place devoted to finding the truth. Justice Holmes wisely wrote:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition…But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas…