Freedom of Speech on Campus

Stepping into university, I expected an environment more open than any other I had been in—a social sphere centralized around freedom of speech, where no one would get attacked or be asked to censor themselves when stating their thoughts. I have met people with interesting ideas, but unfortunately, not all students have been tolerant of them. The lack of openness to perspectives in disagreement with theirs is what personally bothered me the most. Some controversial topics include race, religion and sex.

For example, let’s discuss race. The common view is that no one should be treated any differently because of their race. However, some people become sensitive to this subject, reflected by an overcompensation of reactionary attitudes towards dealing with the ones who disagree. For instance, one of my floormates is extremely sensitive to racism against people of colour to a point that she believes reverse racism (being racist against white people) is not possible, and she is not comfortable having any further debates about it. Sensitivity and excess emotion could be detrimental to others’ right to freedom of speech, and can cloud our objective judgment. By being over-sensitive, people create and promote an air of censorship, which not only prevents a healthy exchange of ideas but filters out other ideas that could have been beneficial to many. It is okay to disagree, but it is usually unfruitful to prohibit the simple act of stating an idea.

Now let’s take a look at religion. Western University’s students come from a variety of religious backgrounds. In my short time spent at Western, I have met people from all Abrahamic religions, Buddhism and Sikhism. Yet it surprises me that there are not as many discussions around religion as there are around other controversies. For example, students constantly speak of their differences, which range from something as simple and recreational as sports to their political beliefs. In academics, students are exposed to philosophers and scientists of contrasting views. However, when it comes to religion, suddenly a defensive mindset is established by the person whose religion is at question. This reaction is so common that many, including myself, don’t bother to bring this interesting topic up anymore. Unfortunately, this avoidance has not only become socially expected, but is falsely labelled as respect. I have been told that being against a religion is analogous to being racist. It is important to note that religion is quite different than race; the crucial difference being that people don’t have control over their race, but they do have a choice in what they believe. Being born into a religion is out of one’s control, but deciding to remain in it is not. For this reason, there should be nothing wrong with people of different beliefs sharing their ideas, arguing for them, or criticizing each other’s ideas. When a religion is objectively and critically being questioned, it does not mean its follower is being attacked or that the follower is going to be treated any differently due to their religion in the future. If the follower feels uncomfortable answering questions about his or her religious beliefs, this could be a sign of needing to research or reflect on his or her own religion more extensively; this will either strengthen the follower’s faith, or change his or her mind completely. In either case, no damage is done as a result of taking action to rid this discomfort. In the same way that stating an idea should be okay, criticizing that idea should be as well.

Religion is seen as a taboo topic that should be avoided at all costs in order to maintain a civil conversation and avoid offending anyone. Many topics share the same concern. Similar to the way that there are stigmas around STIs, there are stigmas around one’s sexual relations. For instance, people that have many one night stands are labelled as “f**kboys,” “hoes,” “players,” and “assholes,” to name a few. Some of the nicest and most kind-hearted people I have met at Western are labelled as such. Sadly, the incorrect labelling spreads through rumours, which are often distorted. One of my friends contracted an STI at the beginning of the year as a result of a one night stand and is still being talked about in a way that does not sound like the person I know at all. Having many sexual partners does not define one’s entire personality, and is no basis for avoiding people who make such decisions. The same goes for the ones who hold the opposite view and want to save themselves for marriage. Whatever decision one makes about sex, although personal, could still be a great topic of discussion and debate.

Spreading ideas and talking about them is part of every university experience, but twisting the ideas of others around to use them to support one’s own idea means that people will believe them on false pretenses. Everyone should have access to information that is not skewed by biased ideology. Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, but they should face the social consequences for the things they say. If one person has the freedom to express hate, everyone else should also have the freedom to respond.

          Figure 1. The data from Campus Freedom Index and a comparison of universities’ scores for freedom of speech shows how poorly this right is   being practised.

          Figure 2. This table from Campus Freedom Index, presents evaluations for Western’s freedom of speech from a variety of aspects. As can be seen, last year, Western earned its lowest score.. To find out how the scores are assigned visit http://campusfreedomindex.ca/methodology/

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I am a first-year student in WISc (integrated science). I really enjoy writing, reading, running in the mornings with a friend, and taking pictures (candid specifically). Writing, re-organizing my belongings or watching organization videos, and volunteering my time are my favourite destressers after writing a test that doesn't go too well! 

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