4 min

Censorship on campus is getting worse

Shutting down debate is faux liberation

For gay audiences, The Way We Were is a touchtone free-speech film. I know, it’s easy to get lost in Robert Redford’s easy grace. I know, the best scene in the film (“You’ll never find anyone as good for you as I am, to believe in you as much as I do…”) has nothing to do with free speech.

I also know that for some, the final third of the film — where Katie and the gang go to Washington to fight McCarthy — is the boring part. Katie, a c-c-c-communist, is at odds with everyone, mouthing off to the press and forcing Hubble into a fistfight to protect her (sigh!).

The Washington trip represents the final, heartbreaking disintegration of their relationship, but it also harkens back to the opening frames of the film. Katie, at a university peace rally, is nearly heckled off the stage. The audience hollers because they don’t want to hear what the communist league has to say. In frustration, she throws up her hands and yells, “What are you so afraid of?”

What are we so afraid of? It’s been ringing through my head quite a bit. That’s because the latest batch of anti-free speech bunglings (two incidents in two weeks) have happened on a university campus — my alma mater, the University of Ottawa. I find it particularly gripping because it’s progressives, not conservatives, who have their finger on the trigger there.

Women’s studies students have come out swinging against a satirical advice column and a cartoon in a tiny publication called Oral Otis, published by engineering students. Both were intended to be funny — in fact, they were puerile, childish and against even their own editor’s better judgment. The cartoon was mean to disabled people and the advice column was shot through with misogyny.

The pieces warranted condemnation, but women’s studies students there couldn’t resist baiting freespeechers.

Here are two passages from a letter written by the leaders of the Women’s Studies Student Association, directed at the engineers:

“It appears unfortunate for the rest of us that your apparent ‘sense of humour’ is rooted in deep-seated sexism and ableism, and can only be exercised at the humiliation of others. You may also seek to wrap yourself in a blanket of immunity, asserting your ‘freedom of speech.’ The freedom to express must be balanced with the content and its effect on the freedom of individuals to remain equal within society.

“To excuse your behaviour by insisting that what you have published was a ‘joke’ or is within your ‘freedom of speech’ is insulting, insufficient, and infinitely short sighted. You have truly failed in your roles as student leaders on this campus.”

A vigorous defence of free speech (nice of them to put it in scare quotes, by the way) is insulting?

Given that some of the most-confiscated, censored and persecuted texts of modernity have been either lesbian or feminist (or both) — I think it’s time we gave free speech a little more due.

In the other case, U of O students swarmed a meeting of the Fulcrum, the university’s biggest newspaper. They passed a new bylaw banning advertising from National Defence, a contract worth at least $5,000 to the paper. The problem is, once you decline an advertisement on the basis of its content (other than for legal reasons), you’re then in the strange position of endorsing the other ads — whether it be diet pills, anti-abortion groups or alcohol-fuelled frat parties.

When I was in school, a feminist professor taught me to look at power structures. Who censors? With the Oral Otis, the primary stakeholder is an institution that relies heavily on its reputation: the university. University administrations and their faculties are risk averse, prone to censorship and conservative. The other folks who can censor the student press are elected reps (student union and faculty associations.) Here again, by nature of their being elected officials, they are risk averse and reactionary — not exactly the formula for a hands-off approach to freedom.

Off campus, it’s the same problem: politicians, police and government departments like the Canadian Border Services Agency are the very last people I would wish to grant the power to edit what I read.

I don’t want to pick on the women studies students, since gay groups are just as likely to attempt to censor. Most recently, queer lobbyists killed an Elephant Man concert hosted by Carleton University students because of his homophobic lyrics.

But when women’s groups and gay groups support censorship, they cut off their nose to spite their face. It is minority groups that depend most heavily on free speech and minority groups that are most heavily punished by curtailing that freedom. Censorship supports the status quo. Period. Look at our case law on censorship: Glad Day Books, The Body Politic, Little Sister’s. Gay words, straight censors.

(In fact, in the 1970s, The Vancouver Sun refused to run ads for Gay Tide, an activist magazine, and queers took the Sun to court. And lost. How’s that for a role reversal among progressives? For shame.)

So what, in the words of Katie, are we so afraid of?

Will the insipid little piece of failed satire at the back of an obscure student periodical convince anyone to hate women? No, the women’s studies students say, but it normalizes misogyny. It’s the same argument that was used during feminist anti-porn activism of the 1980s.

At the time Anna Gronau, a Toronto filmmaker, sought to pull apart instances of expression from actual acts of violence.

“I consider myself to be a feminist, and I believe that sexism is the enemy of women, but I have come to the conclusion that censoring pornography is like killing the messenger who brings bad news. It offers a paternalistic, catchall solution to our problems and distracts our attention from the less visible but more insidious injustices we suffer by focussing on the symptom rather than the disease,” she wrote in Women Against Censorship, a book of essays edited by Varda Burstyn.


We change attitudes by providing information, education, and lobbying for inclusion in curriculum. We change attitudes by writing letters to the editor, launching competing publications and engaging those we disagree with in honest debate. We change attitudes by being present and persistent.

We do not change attitudes by ripping newspaper stands out of student space, as the student union did. Shutting down debate will not benefit minority communities. And we do not change attitudes by baiting those who value freedom of speech.

Incidentally, it took me all of 10 minutes to get my hands on a copy of the obscure student publication in question, thanks to the endless reproductive possibilities offered by the digital age. I’m sure lots of curious students have done the same.

The Oral Otis handed students at the University of Ottawa an opportunity to educate students about sexism. It’s not too late to do that.

In response, the women’s studies students have handed us a chance to start a dialogue about free speech on campus. I hope students take them up on it.