Univer­sity’s re­ac­tion to posters was cow­ardly

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - EDITORIAL - Brian Jones Brian Jones is a desk edi­tor at The Tele­gram. He can be reached at bjones@thetele­gram.com.

An open let­ter to Gary Kachanoski, pres­i­dent of Memo­rial Univer­sity:

Dear Mr. Kachanoski,

As an alum­nus of Memo­rial Univer­sity, I was dis­ap­pointed to see the dis­re­gard you have for the im­por­tant prin­ci­ple of free­dom of speech.

Be­ing the leader of a post­sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tion, you can’t pos­si­bly need re­mind­ing that uni­ver­si­ties have de­vel­oped over the cen­turies as cen­tres of thought, learn­ing, ideas, dis­cus­sion and de­bate, fear­ing nei­ther church nor state nor mob.

And yet, some­one puts up posters on your cam­pus that are deemed of­fen­sive, and you tear them down and or­der Cam­pus En­force­ment and Pa­trol staff to find the per­pe­tra­tors.

You have joined the ranks of ad­min­is­tra­tions at nu­mer­ous other North Amer­i­can cam­puses where free­dom of speech is sti­fled and re­strained, and re­placed with ex­cuses of why it can­not be ex­er­cised.

Please pon­der the mes­sage your ac­tions sent to stu­dents. Rather than teach them that free­dom of speech is an in­her­ent right in a free so­ci­ety, you taught them that it can be re­scinded on a whim by author­ity.

Your stu­dents need to know free­dom of speech is not easy. It may be an in­alien­able right — not to be in­fringed upon by church or state or mob — but ex­er­cis­ing it is not easy, hear­ing it is not easy and pro­tect­ing it is not easy.

Free­dom of speech is of­ten of­fen­sive, and oc­ca­sion­ally it is ugly. Oth­ers may choose to ar­gue with speak­ers or ig­nore them, as they see fit. But shut­ting them up, es­pe­cially on a univer­sity cam­pus, is au­thor­i­tar­ian.

The posters that were re­moved last week­end at Memo­rial Univer­sity were head­lined, “The Is­lamic dom­i­na­tion of the West.” The poster was inar­guably in­flam­ma­tory, and un­doubt­edly prompted re­ac­tions of anger and dis­gust.

Your ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­par­ently be­lieves in­flam­ma­tory speech is grounds for cen­sor­ship.

This at­ti­tude is a be­trayal of cen­turies of tra­di­tion at uni­ver­si­ties in the Western world, where schol­ars have re­sisted and fought against cries of “Heresy!” from the church and ac­cu­sa­tions of “Trea­son!” from the state.

In the mod­ern world, the mob also de­mands the sti­fling of free­dom of speech.

Do not suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion to shut down any dis­cus­sion of Is­lam, ter­ror­ism, im­mi­gra­tion and re­lated top­ics be­cause a mob screams “Is­lam­o­pho­bia!”

A univer­sity cam­pus, of all places, should al­low for un­re­strained speech about any and all top­ics.

A cam­pus ad­min­is­tra­tion, and its fac­ulty, should teach stu­dents that some in­for­ma­tion they come across in their stud­ies and in their life may be dis­turb­ing.

Un­for­tu­nately, your act of cen­sor­ship has be­come com­mon on cam­puses, with ad­min­is­tra­tors lamely ex­plain­ing that stu­dents must be kept “safe” and must have no cause for “fear.” Good God! Are to­day’s stu­dents such cow­ards that they have to be shielded from opin­ions that are un­pop­u­lar?

In Canada, univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors can re­sort to the “hate speech” excuse, ig­nor­ing their re­spon­si­bil­ity to in­stead be a bas­tion against state cen­sor­ship of any speech, “hate­ful” or oth­er­wise.

My other alma mater, the Univer­sity of Cal­gary, had a small space dubbed Speaker’s Cor­ner, with a low plat­form on which a per­son could stand. Any­one could get up and talk about any sub­ject. Passersby could stop and lis­ten, or not. That was in the 1970s. I don’t know if it is still there.

I wasn’t aware of a sim­i­lar space at Memo­rial Univer­sity when I at­tended two decades ago.

If there is one now, and a stu­dent or fac­ulty mem­ber got up and es­poused the ideas ex­pressed on the poster that you re­moved, would you or­der the cam­pus cops to haul him/her away in hand­cuffs? That is the equiv­a­lent of what you did by tak­ing down the posters. Re­gards,

Brian Jones

B.ED. (1995)

Free­dom of speech is of­ten of­fen­sive, and oc­ca­sion­ally it is ugly. Oth­ers may choose to ar­gue with speak­ers or ig­nore them, as they see fit. But shut­ting them up, es­pe­cially on a univer­sity cam­pus, is au­thor­i­tar­ian.

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