Fraser Forum

Free speech on campus—modern constructs inevitably spur conflict

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Lately there has been increasing tension over the freedoms of expression and association in Canada and the United States. The reason—these freedoms have come in conflict with anti-discrimination sentiments and laws, and institutions are figuring out what to do or what balance to strike in addressing them.

College campuses in both countries remain on the frontlines of this tension, sparking headlines, most recently at the University of Toronto, with the trend seemingly being to weaken speech and association rights.

For example, we’ve seen conservative and libertarian speakers silenced due to high security fees necessary to manage protestors, professors limiting what students can say ("melting pot" and "male and female"), students protesting against western focused curricula, and making complaints or threats over speech that is “microaggressive” or “microinvalidative,” which in turn is addressed by the bias response teams.

These developments, which sound eerily similar to "newspeak" and "doublethink," are of concern to those who value individual liberty, and by extension (typically), economic liberty. But to formulate a solution one must first identify the problem. It seems there are two dynamics to consider:

First, there are two types of rights—negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights are rights self-evident by creation and man's natural state in the world. Negative rights put no duty on others, other than they must not interfere with the individual's free exercise of those rights. Live and let live, as they say.

Positive rights, by contrast, are modern constructs of the welfare state. These are rights to a particular outcome, such as financial aid or good treatment. While civil society respects and helps its neighbours, these newly devised rights necessarily put a duty on others, often without their consent. This leads to conflict.

For example, individuals can't speak freely if anti-discrimination law gives grounds to shield others from insensitive speech. Though there have always been limits to negative rights, the burden to justify their restriction was previously on government, rather than the individual to defend their free exercise.
Second, the worldview of many western societies―beliefs and values about government, family, children, gender roles, the church―has changed, and continues to change. Institutions, such as government and schools, inculcate this worldview into their mission, laws and leadership. If an institution is most efficient when its fundamental worldview is relatively monolithic (free from division and conflict), then college as a "marketplace of ideas" or a "tournament of narratives" is in some ways quite fanciful.

If colleges thrive under one worldview, the question is only which one? Speech codes, safe zones, trigger warnings, then, are all means that an institution transitions (very gradually) from one worldview to another. Indeed, the very term "political correctness" is a means to welcome new values, while punishing old ones.

If these dynamics are weakening expression and association rights on college campuses and elsewhere, then there’s no easy solution. Tweaking laws, electing new politicians, disseminating new information, will likely be temporary and pass away. Instead, for institutions—in Canada, the U.S. and other countries—to embrace the primacy of individual liberty, the more sobering and tall order is to change the hearts and minds of masses of people in a very basic and yet profound way.


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