Je Suis the 13 Dalhousie Dentistry Students

dalhousie-university-dentistry

By Scott van Dyk, 2L

A crime has been committed. The perpetrators, 13 men in their fourth year of the Dalhousie Dentistry program, have been separated from their classmates and suspended from school.

Those suspensions effectively entail a number of things: it means that the wrongdoers will not be able to graduate – after each spending $130,000 in tuition alone and 4 years of their lives working towards their degrees. They will not be able to practice dentistry – individually costing them hundreds of thousands more in lost marginal salary, not to mention the personal costs of not practising their desired careers.

What crime was committed that warrants this punishment?

They told crude jokes to their friends in private.

For the unaware, these students were in a closed, 13 person Facebook group. They made a series of misogynistic jokes about women in general and some specific classmates. I’m not here to argue about proportionality (although by any analysis, the response is certainly disproportionate). In addition, analyzing whether a closed Facebook group should be considered private is essentially analyzing whether to attach a technical label. This avoids the substance of the matter. Rather, I am saying that the act of punishing these students at all violates our ideas of free expression.

It’s almost banal to say in discussions about free expression, but it warrants saying: Only offensive speech needs protection. To protect only common, trite speech reflecting majority sentiment is to remove entirely the content from the right to free expression.

In other words, if it doesn’t rankle someone, it doesn’t need protecting. It’s why no one has ever called for a ban on weather reporting, but there have been calls for bans on criticism of religious groups.

The refrain, “free speech is okay as long as it doesn’t offend others” misses the point of free expression entirely.

Freedom of expression demands a principled approach. Do-gooders always cite reasons for banning controversial speech. But here’s the thing: If by case-by-case exceptions are granted, then all speech which is offensive to someone will be banned. Only dull speech is left. Freedom of expression will have been completely neutered.

The alternative is to only grant some exceptions, but then we would be privileging some people over others. It wouldn’t be rational either. It would be based on arbitrary factors like which voices are noisiest, or who happens to be in a position of authority at the time.

Dalhousie has decided that their role is to be the arbiter of speech and humour. They will decide which groups are privileged. They will also decide what students are and aren’t allowed to say – even in the confines of their own lives. Further, they believe that students are too sensitive to hear certain speech. It’s best to have authority protect students from themselves.

The appropriate response by Dalhousie isn’t to punish or to “rehabilitate.” It’s to let these students simply be known as the assholes that made inappropriate jokes.

The attempt to chill speech with threats of formal punishment occurs at UBC too. See: appointing a “referee” at the Guile Debates. I.e. a literal arbiter of humour.

Again, if someone wants to be racist or vile in public, then simply let them be known as racist or vile people. Universities don’t need to violate principles of free expression. The students harmed themselves already.

In the recent aftermath of the Charlie Hedbo attacks, many Canadians defiantly stated “Je Suis Charlie.” They proudly said they will not be intimidated into restricting freedom of speech. Canadians are now proving they are Charlie only if they happen to agree with the speech. If they don’t agree, well… just look at what happened to the Dalhousie Dentistry students

3 thoughts on “Je Suis the 13 Dalhousie Dentistry Students

  1. Scott, this is lazy reasoning. You use “free speech” vaguely, as a buzzword, as if it is totally self-evident why protecting free speech is inherently and absolutely valuable regardless of circumstances, consequences, or context, to side with the guys who willingly engaged in harassment and discrimination against women. You diminish the concerns of particular women students who were individually targeted, harms to women in the student community when sexism is tolerated, and the fear and outrage of the public as potential patients to such dentists who joked specifically about raping women using dentists’ sedatives or “correctively” raping lesbians. This isn’t about all offensive speech being “banned” everywhere because people are too “sensitive.” Their speech has real harmful effects and tolerating all such sexist speech on principle in university and professional contexts has terrible net effects. And, as trite as it is to say, they are not entitled to professional degrees.

    Perhaps you do not care about eradicating harassment and discrimination against women in professional contexts. “Just let them be known as vile assholes” is passive tolerance. It implies that our only concern should be whether these men suffer for their assholery. No—this is not about them or whether they feel sorry or shamed or not. This is about everyone who is affected by their comments. This is about setting a precedent of intolerance for harassment and discrimination. A failure to respond punitively to such behaviour means not taking harassment, discrimination, or unethical professional behaviour seriously. If we are truly committed to eradicating these kinds of problems, then by definition you cannot tolerate harmful behaviour in certain spheres and must have some kind of system in place to punish that. I don’t know to what extent I need to explain that sexism and sexual harassment cause massive, unjustified harms to people who have to endure this discrimination pervasively—including diminished employment and promotion prospects and real, chronic psychological stress. Eradication requires taking a strong anti-discrimination stance and following through with punitive measures.

    Sure, having their careers jeopardized seems devastating. I haven’t heard anywhere that they won’t be able to graduate permanently and am curious where you read that, but the suspensions on their own are really impactful. I’m not interested in defending whether a particular punishment is proportionate or correct, but am opposed to your outrage that any punishment with a devastating effect is immediately inappropriate because “free speech.” It’s also devastating to lose your job and salary if you are fired for sexual harassment. Do you think you shouldn’t punish people in such circumstances just because it would be devastating to them? And you know what’s also devastating? Pervasive sexual harassment. If we want to side with people who are being marginalized and harmed by discriminatory cultures, then people who voluntarily commit these discriminatory acts will sometimes face devastating consequences in being removed from the space. Maybe they shouldn’t have trivialized violence against women.

    “Dalhousie has decided that their role is to be the arbiter of speech and humour. They will decide which groups are privileged.”

    The ironic thing here is that anti-discrimination policies are not about “privileging” women who are offended. They are about deconstructing the privilege that some people have to be sexists, which ends up entrenching systemic privilege and actually tangibly harming people. These guys are not the little guys. It is not tyrannical for a university to prevent some students from targeting and denigrating other students on the basis of sex—which perpetuates sexism that has real, lasting harms on women’s lives. This is not just about “hurt feelings” and “free speech” and it is disingenuous of you to erase all of this context.

  2. Kaja’s correct, I didn’t explain why freedom of speech has inherent value. I did not do so in the interests of brevity, not because of an analytical misstep. There are many reasons, but my primary reasoning is based on an aversion to authority dictating what my thoughts ought or ought not to be. Essentially, I have a healthy distrust of authority and am concerned with checking its powers. If you believe in the benevolence of authority figures, you’ll probably find my argument less convincing.

    Public institutions such as universities deserve scrutiny. These have been conflated with private institutions. In private contexts, people that are vile are generally bad for business. I don’t have data, but it’s a reasonable proposition that oppressive work atmospheres drive away superb employees, eventually harming people and businesses. Society indirectly harms these people by making them unemployable. No one has a right to a job. In the private law practice example, people tend not to do business with vile people. Clients vote with their dollars.

    This fits into my argument that no sanction from a public authority is needed. In today’s age, not only are vile people socially ostracized, but markets punish those individuals and their careers too.

    This isn’t to reduce my argument to one of letting market forces do the good work of society. It’s just a nice bonus.

    You assume public inaction is the same thing as passive tolerance. It’s not passive tolerance – it’s simply public inaction. Again, social groups tend not to tolerate these people. Today’s society takes harassment seriously not because there are rules against it. Society takes harassment seriously because citizens know that it’s morally wrong.

    But let’s say I’m wrong, and we should ban this speech. The hostile environment is still filled with the same vile people. Congratulations, you haven’t solved the social evil. You’ve just made it slightly less public. As an example, and you may be shocked to learn this, but banning hate speech didn’t solve racism. People solve social evils, not laws.

    You’re arguing for a rubber stamp on society’s current views with an official punishment. I’ve shown that such a “system” is not necessary. At no point did I argue that speech shouldn’t have consequences. Speech still does. It just shouldn’t have a punishment from a public authority.

    In essence: I’ve argued free speech, not consequence-free speech.

    Rights are hardest to defend when you don’t like the people exercising them. I never justified the men or their words. I justified their ability to say them. If authority needs to like the speech, then why even bother having the right?

  3. Scott, I think you fundamentally misunderstand what the substantive issue is. These men have been denied a privilege based on the content of their speech and how it pertains to their intended profession. Insofar as they are seeking to become medical professionals, they have to be able to meet the standards of the pertinent regulatory bodies. Their decision to make the comments that they did is sufficient grounds for punishment within the university insofar as the punishment pertains to preventing them from entering a profession they are no longer qualified to be a part of. Universities do not exist to blindly protect free speech , they also have responsibilities to the broader community of students and dental patients and it is in weighing those responsibilities that they have punished these men. It is disingenuous to pretend that this punishment is some sort of “rubber stamp.” It is an appropriate consequence, and how it pertains to their ability to freely express themselves is not entirely relevant.

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