Hear no evil, see no evil on cam­pus

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA -

As in­tol­er­ance to un­pop­u­lar opin­ions has grown on Cana­dian cam­puses, univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tions have been forced into in­no­va­tive strate­gies to keep the peace while avoid­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of sti­fling free speech.

In the not-too-dis­tant past, of­fi­cials seek­ing to pla­cate cam­pus groups op­posed to con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers or events could use the threat of tres­pass laws — as hap­pened at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary in 2009 when a pro-life group sought to erect a dis­play on cam­pus — or is­sue a clumsy warn­ing about the lim­its of free speech — as Univer­sity of Ottawa provost Fran­cois Houle de­liv­ered be­fore a planned visit by Amer­i­can polemi­cist Ann Coul­ter in 2010.

But t he on­go­ing — if per­verse — de­ter­mi­na­tion to kow­tow to the nar­row dog­ma­tism of cam­pus ac­tivists has ev­i­dently pushed academics and other mem­bers of Canada’s univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tions into seek­ing cre­ative new ways to mol­lify de­mands for “safe spa­ces” on cam­pus and pro­tec­tion from ex­po­sure to views that may di­verge from the lat­est in­ter­pre­ta­tions of political ac­cept­abil­ity. Univer­si­ties, once con­sid­ered pro­po­nents of learn­ing, now seem to see it as their duty to pro­tect stu­dents from ex­po­sure to views that may vi­o­late pre­vail­ing doc­trines.

The so­lu­tion? The Univer­sity of Al­berta re­cently hit on a rel­a­tively novel idea. When the group UAl­berta Pro-Life sought to set up an ex­hibit that would in­clude dis­plays show­ing graphic pic­tures of aborted fe­tuses — al­most cer­tainly of­fend­ing pro- choice stu­dents or fac­ulty — the univer­sity no­ti­fied the group it would be charged a fee of $ 17,500 to cover the cost of se­cu­rity.

The group says it was in­formed of the charge just 11 days be­fore the event, which the pres­i­dent of the club said the group couldn’t pos­si­bly af­ford. “Not only is $ 17,500 a very large num­ber for stu­dents, but the univer­sity would have wanted a $9,000 de­posit by last Fri­day,” said UAl­berta Pro-Life’s Am­ber­lee Ni­col. “We just don’t have that kind of money.” As a re­sult, the group had to can­cel its event.

It can’t be con­sid­ered any­thing but bizarre that the po­ten­tial tar­gets of dis­rup­tion would be charged for their pro­tec­tion, rather than those rep­re­sent­ing the dis­rup­tion. If a sim­i­lar ap­proach was taken by so­ci­ety at large, any group want­ing to stage a pub­lic protest would re­ceive a bill for the re­sul­tant polic­ing bud­get. Should a pro-life group wish to erect a dis­play, and UAl­berta Pro-Life mem­bers ar­rived to trash it, would the univer­sity hold the vic­tims to ac­count in a sim­i­lar man­ner?

It is surely no co­in­ci­dence that the Univer­sity of Al­berta chose to di­rect its de­mand to­wards a group with a mes­sage con­trary to pre­vail­ing cam­pus dogma. Sim­i­lar re­quests have been made of men’s groups plan­ning events on cam­pus in the past, though the price tags for se­cu­rity in those cases were dra­mat­i­cally less: $ 964 for a Univer­sity of Toronto group to host a 2013 lecture and $1,600 for the Men’s Is­sues Aware­ness So­ci­ety at Ry­er­son Univer­sity in 2014, though that fee was later with­drawn.

Wendy Rodgers, deputy provost at the U of A, said all groups go through the same con­sid­er­a­tion process when they ap­ply to host an event on cam­pus. She said the univer­sity is “will­ing to work” with the group to help lessen the fi­nan­cial bur­den, per­haps by mov­ing to event to a lo­ca­tion where fewer po­lice of­fi­cers or se­cu­rity guards would be nec­es­sary. Of course, mov­ing the ex­hibit to a re­mote cor­ner of the cam­pus would also serve to re­duce the group’s vis­i­bil­ity and its abil­ity to share its ideas.

It sends en­tirely the wrong mes­sage for univer­si­ties to put the fi­nan­cial bur­den of se­cu­rity on or­ga­ni­za­tions seek­ing only to share their views in a peace­able and civ­i­lized man­ner. It ac­cords those un­will­ing to tol­er­ate other views the abil­ity to si­lence them merely by threat­en­ing dis­rup­tion. If ac­tivist groups can’t tol­er­ate the free­dom of oth­ers to hold con­trary opin­ions with­out threat­en­ing dis­rup­tion, surely they are the ones to which the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus should be de­vot­ing its at­ten­tion. At­ti­tudes like those pre­vail­ing at the Univer­sity of Al­berta make it lit­er­ally too ex­pen­sive to have a con­tro­ver­sial opin­ion.



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