LBG Alliance tweeted on Wednesday that it’s “disgraceful that an eminent gay professor of human rights law was unable to discuss gay rights. Gay people still have rights, don’t we?”
That is a fair question but there was no firm answer from the law dean who reportedly expressed support for free speech but did not publicly call for accountability for those who disrupted the event. There is a difference between protesting outside of an event (which should be clearly protected) and entering an event to prevent others from being able to hear a speaker or panel.
McGill Faculty of Law Dean Robert Leckey sent an email to students about the talk. Leckey stated
“An academic institution doesn’t endorse all views held by each speaker it hosts. Board members do not endorse everything said or done by organizations they help to govern. Relatedly, advocates do not endorse everything said or done by the clients they defend vigorously. I believe firmly that, over the long term, preserving this separation is important, including for members of our LGBTQ+ communities.”
That is a fine statement with the exception that there is no report of actions taken to punish those responsible, including reported acts that would be considered assault and property damage. If there were such a statement, it was not reported in the media.
The canceling campaign at McGill is a common pattern in schools ranging from Yale to Northwestern to Georgetown. Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned).
This dangerous trend in academia is discussed in my law review article, Jonathan Turley, “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States”, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
We have seen how this can turn into a type of “heckler’s veto” where speeches are cancelled in advance or terminated suddenly due to the disruption of protesters. The issue is not engaging in protest against such speakers, but to enter events for the purpose of preventing others from hearing such speakers. Universities create forums for the discussion of a diversity of opinions. Entering a classroom or event to prevent others from speaking is barring free speech. I would feel the same way about preventing such people from protests outside such events. However, the concern is not with outdoor events where all groups can be as loud and cantankerous as their voices will bear. Both sides have free speech rights to express. The issue on campus is the entrance into halls, or classrooms to prevent others from hearing speakers or opposing viewpoints by disputing events.
This has been an issue of contention with some academics who believe that free speech includes the right to silence others. Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over the use of a heckler’s veto on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, even including a few speakers like an ACLU official. Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech. At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech.
The lack of discipline in such cases has been a long-standing problem. There is little deterrent for students or faculty who cannot abide others hearing opposing views. While some schools have shown the courage to hold students accountable, most offer little more than mild criticism.
I previously discussed the incident involving a Sociology 201 class by Professor Beth Redbird. The class examined “inequality in American society with an emphasis on race, class and gender.” Redbird came up with an interesting comparison for her students by inviting both an undocumented person and a spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to separate classes. Members of MEChA de Northwestern, Black Lives Matter NU, the Immigrant Justice Project, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, NU Queer Trans Intersex People of Color and Rainbow Alliance organized to stop other students from hearing from the ICE representative. However, they could not have succeeded without the help of Northwestern administrators (including Dean of Students Todd Adams). The protesters were screaming “F**k ICE” outside of the hall. Adams and the other administrators then said that the protesters screaming profanities would be allowed into the class if they promised not to disrupt the class. They promised not to disrupt the class. As soon as the protesters were allowed into the classroom, they prevented the ICE representative from speaking. The ICE representatives eventually left and Redbird canceled the class to discuss the issue with the protesters that just prevented her students from hearing an opposing view.
The comments of the Northwestern students were predictable after being told by faculty that some offensive speech should be treated as a form of assault. SESP sophomore April Navarro rejected that faculty should be allowed to invite such speakers to their classrooms for a “good, nice conversation with ICE.” She insisted such speakers needed to be silenced because they “terrorize communities” and profit from detainee labor. Here is the face of the new generation of censors being shaped by speech-intolerant academics:
“We’re not interested in having those types of conversations that would be like, ‘Oh, let’s listen to their side of it’ because that’s making them passive rule-followers rather than active proponents of violence. We’re not engaging in those kinds of things; it legitimizes ICE’s violence, it makes Northwestern complicit in this. There’s an unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses.”
These students were identified in interviews by name. They had no fear of any consequence in stopping a professor from teaching a class at Northwestern. They were right. The official response to students shutting down a class to silence an opposing view resulted in a statement that the actions of the students were “disappointing that the speakers were not allowed to speak.”
McGill should be commended for seeking to have a discussion of these issues and later defending diversity of thought on campus. However, those words mean nothing if the school does not back up free speech principles with real measures of accountability for students and faculty alike.