In the case of protesters interrupting speakers at universities – how should this be handled?

Ann Coulter, a right-wing controversial polemicist, has made news following the controversy of her speaking arrangements at U.C. Berkeley where university administrators have cancelled her speech, due to security concerns.

Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak at Berkeley a couple of months ago, was forced to withdraw from the event after violent anarchists stormed the building and smashed windows/started fires.  Executives likely attribute Coulter’s cancellation due to this past occurrence.

However, following the news of the cancellation, Coulter has stated she will go on with her speech and it is still unclear how U.C. Berkeley will proceed.

Only time will tell how events will unfold on April 29th, the day of Coulter’s planned speech.  Although provocative, this type of anarchical behaviour is certainly not warranted – especially considering the fact that she is simply speaking.

Proceeding north of the border, students have not yet regressed towards this malignancy, however, this relatively new phenomenon of preventing guest speakers from talking has been happening more and more in Canada as some have been forced to cancel their events due to these extenuating circumstances.

For example, right-wing gadfly, Ezra Levant, who went to speak at the University of Toronto, had his event stormed by masked provocateurs.  These protesters were restrained by policemen; however, they ended up pulling a fire alarm which forced Levant and the students out of the building.  In a similar event in Ryerson, a student group handed out whistles to protesters – most who strictly came for the purpose of disrupting and preventing Ezra Levant from speaking.  Security had managed to restrain protesters from entering said space where Levant was talking, yet protesters sitting-in decided to intervene during his speech, shouted him down, which in turn, prevented him from speaking. More so, a much less controversial, and rather moderate professor Jordan Peterson, also had his event hijacked at McMaster University.  Therefore, the prevalency of this occurrence poses the question as to what should be the correct procedure for situations like these.  Many on the left contend that since Levant along with Peterson have the right to free speech, people protesting should have the right to freedom of expression as well.

In the States, for contentious situations like these, universities are generally instructed to turn to the AAUP, which is arguably the leading institution for universities in the US.  The CAUT, or the Canadian Association of University Teachers, is Canada’s AAUP and they hold the responsibility of creating and upholding a structural framework that universities in Canada are expected to abide to, especially in cases like these.  Here is what CAUT has to say on academic freedom:

Post-secondary educational institutions serve the common good of society through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge and understanding and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students. Robust democracies require no less. These ends cannot be achieved without academic freedom.

Academic freedom includes the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom to teach and discuss; freedom to carry out research and disseminate and publish the results thereof; freedom to produce and perform creative works; freedom to engage in service to the institution and the community; freedom to express one’s opinion about the institution, its administration, and the system in which one works; freedom to acquire, preserve, and provide access to documentary material in all formats; and freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies.  Academic freedom always entails freedom from institutional censorship.

By disrupting the speech, are these protesters impeding the fundamental right to academic freedom, which in this case entails the students ‘freedom to teach and discuss’?  It seems the answer is a resounding yes.  They are preventing the dissemination of knowledge and understanding, and in doing so, are therefore stymying the process of independent thinking. Certainly, through these principles it seems that people attending said speaker with a means to learn, should have their rights supersede those who are attending the speaker with a means to disrupt.  Perhaps these protesters should be provided a platform to voice their disagreements; however not to the point where it is preventing said speaker from talking.  Indeed, many of these ‘protesters’, who chant loudly and make noise, are not contributing anything to the conversation at hand except for vague, over-encompassing platitudes and barbed accusations that are generally directed towards the speaker and even the students attending.

In doing so, these protesters attempt to further an agenda which is antithetical to the idea of academic freedom, and it is done usually under the guise of tolerance and diversity – hence why universities are scared to intervene on the premise of being seen as ‘intolerant’.

Although some of these protesters might carry good intentions in performing said actions, it is antithetical to the idea of academic freedom, which through the principles listed by CAUT, are enshrined in the right of the students who are attending university.  Therefore, when performing said actions at protests, they should be asked/force to leave, or be silenced to the point of protesting where it is not disruptive to the speaker (see Levant at Ryerson where whistles were being blown – this should not be allowed).  If these students refuse to abide to the warnings, further measures should be taken.  One suggestion is to impose academic restrictions or measures, such as expulsion or an imposition of academic misconducts etc.  If protesters do not go to said university, or are not attendees, than other means such as fines or even detention/arrestation.  Perhaps if such measures are taken, this will garner apprehension for many students participating in these ‘shoutdowns’ and prevent them from doing so.  Saying this, arrestation should only be used as a last resort and only when protesters are consciously aware of what they are doing, why they should stop, and what consequences will be had if they don’t.

People also argue that universities have a responsibility to uphold a space where marginalized students are not threatened by certain viewpoints.  Hate speech or racism can potentially inflame tensions, cause anxiety, create an unwelcome environment amongst its students and create the spread of dangerous falsehoods.

Richard Moon, an outspoken critic on the subject, who is also a professor that teaches constitutional law at the University of Windsor argues that, “The speaker should not be held responsible for how some in the audience understand or use his speech – most obviously when this understanding is at odds with the speakers intent.”

Moon believes that if, “the speaker’s expression does not cross the line into racist or sexist speech, then a counter-protest, while permitted, must not interfere with the event.  He continues his point saying that, “We cannot justify censoring him/her because others may misconstrue or misuse his words.”  He justifies his argument based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, along with past rulings made by the Supreme Court that pertain to this matter.

Therefore it can be argued that, Jordan Peterson and Ezra Levant, along with Milo Yiannopoulos and even Ann Coulter are not purveyors of hate speech, but rather provocative, yet informative speech.  This argument could be contentious, were it not for the fact that these individuals have been given prominent platforms to espouse their views (Coulter and Yiannopoulos with Fox News, Jordan Peterson, along with Ezra Levant on Sun News).  Moon states, “members of the university community should be free to express views on political matters that are […] perhaps distasteful to others.”

Furthermore, on the University Affairs website, a publication owned by University Canada (another prominent “voice of Canadian universities, at home and abroad”) carries an article written by Andre Costopoulos, Vice-Provost and Dean of Students at the University of Alberta, that contends:

For university administrators faced with the decision of whether to host a controversial speaker, or with how to respond to an escalating and potentially violent protest or counter-protest, it is important to go back to first principles and to our core mission: we run institutions of higher learning on behalf of the wider community and for the benefit of the public. Diversity of views and the ability to explore ideas are crucial to our mission. We must provide a safe and appropriate environment for discussion and debate. We are entrusted with deciding when physical safety trumps intellectual exploration, but we are also trusted to not be bullied or intimidated out of carrying out the essential elements of our institution’s academic mission.

Costopoulos eloquently elucidates the idea of a universities ‘core mission’, which, in a nutshell, is for administrators to uphold the universities academic mission of providing academic freedom for the benefit of the public, students and therefore our democracy.

Indeed, only to the extent when sufficient measures have been taken and the risk of physical violence and harm is way too high, only then should an event such as Levant’s or Peterson’s be cancelled.  As long as the university demonstrates they have taken steps to try to ensue the debate to continue and have proven that they have followed through with attempting to adhere to their ‘core mission’, only then should a cancellation occur.  University administrators in Canada have proven to be way too soft and have failed to take sufficient steps to prevent these counter-protesters from hijacking these events.

Saying all this, it is past time to say enough is enough.  University administrators have proven way too complicit in this recent phenomenon of leftist hijacking and soapboxing. They need to take a stand and adhere to the principles of CAUT, Universities Canada and our democracy.  The longer they wait and allow this sort of behaviour to continue, only diminishes their respectability as an academic institution while also tarnishing their reputation as impotent administrators who show relative indifference when it comes to upholding the fundamental principle of academic freedom.

About Jake Beaumont 58 Articles
BA in Media Studies from the University of Guelph. Graduated from the University of Guelph-Humber with a Diploma in Journalism. Former Research Analyst for Honest Reporting Canada. Published in the Huffington Post, Vancouver Province and many other newspapers across Canada. Specializes in Middle-East politics. Currently situated in Toronto.

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