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