Letter to the Editor graphic
Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Censorship will not defeat bad ideas, better ideas will

Dear editor,

Earlier this year in March, the University of Ottawa announced the creation of the Committee on Academic Freedom and invited members of the university community to submit essays providing their thoughts on the subjects of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I submitted an essay arguing that academic freedom and freedom of speech should both be treated broadly and liberally by the University of Ottawa and the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) except in cases where the speech in question causes physical harm and misinforms people. The essay proposes that the university administration and the UOSU take a liberal approach to regulating speech and that the student body change its attitude to want to refute rather than punish those they think have wrong views. The essay was critical of the University of Ottawa’s decision to temporarily withdraw professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval from her class during the ‘N-word’ controversy that partly motivated the creation of the committee. If readers want to see the full essay I wrote for the committee, it is available at this link.

My essay explores many topics over 18 pages, but there is a portion of my argument that I believe is the most important for people to hear, especially those in the university community. The part of the essay in question is one section where I argue why freedom of speech is necessary, especially in contexts involving people who are attempting to promote reprehensible and bigoted ideas using their freedom of speech. This article is derived from that portion of the longer essay.

It has long been argued that freedom of speech is needed in order to allow people to exchange information and have free and informed discussions that allow people to explore and improve their ideas, thereby gradually advancing society. In summarizing Jonathan Rauch’s book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, political commentator Steve Gerben sums up the usefulness of freedom of speech by explaining that “anyone at any time can be wrong. So, every idea must be checked to see if it’s a good or a bad idea and the way we check ideas […] is by exposing them to public criticism.” Freedom of speech also allows people to call out injustice without fear of punishment.

There is another reason why freedom of speech is necessary. This one is more practical and is particularly relevant to modern politics. The reason in question is that if all parties in a discussion have the freedom to speak their ideas without punishment, this prevents proponents of reprehensible ideas from becoming martyrs. In every case where somebody is punished for saying something that does not cause harm (and, admittedly, even in some cases where the statement in question does cause harm), backlash is swift. A useful example of this is the case of James Sears, a Toronto political commentator who was sent to jail for spreading hateful messages about Jews and women through a publication he was the editor of. Despite Sears having been the leader of the unregistered New Constitution Party, which describes itself as being based on “National Socialist ideology” and despite him saying in an interview that he does not believe six million Jews died in the holocaust, he was seen by some as a victim because he was sent to jail and because Canada Post chose to stop delivering his publication when he was charged. 

There was another way to mitigate the spread of his disgusting ideas. He could have been defeated in the court of public opinion by having his ideas publicly destroyed by other commentators using their own freedom of speech. Instead, the sentencing gives a rhetorical advantage to someone who should not have one. 

An example of proof that it is more effective to defeat bad ideas by using speech than by censoring those ideas is Andrew Neil’s famous interview with political commentator Ben Shapiro, (who is himself a free speech proponent,) on BBC News. (This section of the essay is not intended to equate Sears with Shapiro. It would be cruel to equate a Jewish man with an alleged neo-nazi and Sears’ views are far more extreme than Shapiro’s. Still, the event provides an example of the usefulness of freedom of speech.) In the interview, the two discussed a book by Shapiro which argues that the largest struggle in the United States is the struggle for their national self as everybody is “so angry at each other right now.” Neil challenged Shapiro on his own contribution to the struggle by asking him to answer for his own past anger-encouraging statements such as his statements that Palestinian Arabs “like to bomb crap” and are “rotten to the core.” Neil, using his freedom of speech, held Shapiro to account for his bad ideas. Shapiro, in turn, having to defend his views to the public with his own speech, became uncomfortable and eventually left the interview. The exchange was highly publicized and was such a clear dismantling of Shapiro and his ideas that even he himself admitted defeat. There was no attempt to punish Shapiro for his statements despite their reprehensibility. If that had happened, Shapiro would have had the opportunity to frame himself as a victim of repression and possibly swing the public’s view in his favour. Instead, using freedom of speech to challenge reprehensible ideas proved far more effective at defeating those ideas.

In cases like the Sears case, people’s perceptions of punishment accords with a quote from  George R. R. Martin, who said that “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

A case in the University of Ottawa’s recent history that demonstrates this principle is the UOSU’s revoking of the University of Ottawa Students For Life’s official club status. For a brief period of time, the UOSU chose to allow the club to have club status while officially taking a pro-choice stance. This choice, I would argue, allowed the UOSU to hit as close to an ideal balance as they can between upholding others’ freedom of speech while also using their own freedom of speech to oppose ideas they disagree with. Eventually, however, the UOSU chose to revoke the club’s status, all for their speaking an idea that is not very extreme. Backlash was predictable, with the event being portrayed by some as the erosion of freedom on the university campus.

This leads to the question of what to make of the UOSU’s revoking of the Right Wing Politics Club’s status. For context, the club’s status was revoked after they scheduled an event that was set to feature political commentator Tyler Russell, who self-identifies as a ‘Canadian nationalist,’ as a guest speaker. 

I have mixed thoughts on this event. On one hand, the usefulness of freedom of speech when it comes to refuting people (and not accidentally strengthening them by intervening in a way that gives them what they need to play the victim) still stands, so allowing Russell to speak while also opposing him was an available option. On the other hand, given Russell’s views, I can understand why the UOSU would not want to knowingly allow those ideas to be endorsed by a club that uses its resources and is, in a way, an extension of the union.

I have thought about this a lot since the original submission of my paper to the committee in June and, on the grounds of freedom of speech, I have come to the conclusion that the UOSU should not have revoked the club’s status. Besides, Russell could have been discredited by his critics if they engaged his arguments.

I will say, though, that the Right Wing Politics Club should have chosen to not associate with Russell, not out of fear of punishment, but by their own morals. They should have asked themselves if Russell’s ideas reflect their own values, and if so, they should have asked if these are the right values to have. The members of the Right Wing Politics Club have some real soul-searching to do, even though they may be able to portray themselves as victims in this case.

The students who want to see freedom of speech limited in order to prevent hate and bad ideas are understandable but wrong. Three carding incidents and a revitalized discussion about race set people on edge and strengthened people’s need to strongly confront any possible example of racism on campus, as well as other kinds of bigotry. These feelings are understandable, but people should still be thoughtful of the means by which they wage this fight. 

Freedom of speech is the best tool available to people pursuing social justice. This is because using rhetoric and argumentation to push ideas are the only ways in which social justice movements can actually convince people to believe in the causes by appealing to people’s senses of reason, letting them listen and decide for themselves. Also, as has been said throughout this article, approaching social justice as a contest of ideas in the court of public opinion prevents the backlash that comes with being seen as repressive. Past (and some current) social justice movements such as the civil rights movements and the gay rights movements have embraced the approach of using freedom of speech to advance their ideas, often through public demonstrations and the formation of activist organizations. The people driving these movements ultimately went down in history as having made better arguments than their opponents. Current proponents of social justice must understand that this is the best approach available to them if they want to be seen as the good guys. Events such as the UOSU’s removal of those two clubs from the official clubs list make me concerned that many socially conscious people have lost sight of the necessity of free speech, which has allowed people pushing reprehensible ideas to be seen as being on the right side of their respective debates.

If an idea is right, it can be promoted as such through argumentation. Repression of opponents is not required to push good ideas.

This essay does not simply wish to dismiss people with reprehensible views by just saying they have the freedom to say what they want and using that as an excuse to say that people should accept their awful statements. People should not accept awful views. This essay encourages people to challenge those views and destroy them, and this essay recognizes that freedom of speech is necessary for allowing people to do this.

The allowance of reprehensible ideas to be heard and gain traction is a real downside of freedom of speech, but one that can be countered by others’ use of their freedom of speech.

As was said before in this essay, censorship will not defeat bad ideas. People need to understand why bad ideas are bad and freedom of speech is a necessary tool for carrying out the confrontations that change minds. Bad ideas must be destroyed with words or else they will persist.

Quinn Sam is a student entering his second year studying political science and economy at the University of Ottawa.