Free speech or free-for-all?

Freedom of speech is a universal right, isn’t it? That’s the question students at both Concordia, and now York University, have been asking themselves since a riot occurred at the former institution earlier this year. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister, was banned from speaking after pro-Palestinian students wreaked havoc on the Montreal campus. This caused the Concordia administration to institute a moratorium on any campus discussion regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, much to the dismay of Hillel, the Jewish students’ group. More recently, a speech by pro-Israel academic Daniel Pipes caused students at York University to occupy the office of the President in defiance of the University’s decision to allow Pipes to speak on campus. One really has to ask after these inflamed events—when is enough enough?

A useful starting point in examining the freedom of speech issue is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section one of the Charter states that rights and freedoms (including speech) are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” In reviewing the ruling to uphold the moratorium made by Justice Jean Guibault, it is clear he interpreted the Charter accurately. He stated that “Freedom of expression can’t be exercised at any price.”

The events which took place at Concordia and York reveal that students have forgotten the real meaning of freedom of speech. The right to speak has taken on a personality all its own; the message has become blurred and confused. Any significant interpretation of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been lost in the crescendo arguments between the two parties over who gets to speak first. It is ironic that supposedly academic discussions keep spiraling into physical confrontations.

When the cost of free speech involves the meaning of the very message itself, the price is too high. The losers in this ongoing fiasco are the participants themselves; they are the people who care the most about the issues at stake. The remedy to this situation is not easily identifiable. It is important that both viewpoints be heard, but it is more important that one side is not pitted against the other during the hearing. Perhaps a different forum is needed, or more likely, the passage of time. No need to add wood to the fire when the flames are at their highest.

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