The blurry line of controversial speech

Ali Rizvi’s talk at the recent UTM Snider Lecture is a reminder that free speech, unless inciting violence or hate, must be upheld
Ali Rizvi recently gave the Snider Lecture at UTM. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
Ali Rizvi recently gave the Snider Lecture at UTM. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Central to the university experience is exposure to a variety of perspectives, including controversial ones. In my three years as an undergraduate, I have learned that it is necessary for students to become comfortable with other opinions, especially those that come as a shock or that make them question everything they know — however difficult it may be.

Such a predicament occurred last Tuesday for many Muslim students at UTM’s annual Snider Lecture. This year’s lecture featured controversial figure and award-winning author Ali A. Rizvi, whose talk was entitled, “The Muslim Enlightenment: The rise of secular thought among young Muslims.”

Rizvi openly talked about his journey from being a Muslim to becoming an ‘ex-Muslim.’ Many students, including myself, were apprehensive about Rizvi speaking at UTM, a campus that is known for its cultural diversity and large Muslim population. Many students believed that UTM was wrong to invite Rizvi, under the perception that he held anti-Islamic views. Being a Muslim, I too disapproved of this invitation, yet was curious enough to attend the lecture.

Contrary to what I expected, Rizvi did not spend much time talking about his own personal experiences. Rather, he discussed examples of blasphemy law, which allows governments to legitimize violence against bloggers and activists in countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In Pakistan, blasphemy — the act of insulting religion — is a criminal offence punishable by death. This law became a matter of international debate when a student, Mashal Khan, was lynched on his university campus after being accused of blasphemy.

Rizvi remarked that such incidents are a serious problem in many Muslim countries. I noticed that the event brought out a great number of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Clearly, the topic of the lecture was intriguing for students of all beliefs.   

Some students had voiced their indignation at this lecture, saying that they would not attend out of protest. Following the lecture, I thought about possible reasons why Rizvi should not have been allowed, but I could not come up with any. Setting aside my own personal opinions, I realized that the university had every right to call in whichever speaker they wished.

According to its website, the Snider Lecture Committee’s aim is to bring in speakers who “enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the UTM community.” Although that was not my reaction, I could tell that many people in the audience did consider this to be an intellectual discussion relevant to them. It made me realize that, at the end of the day, despite my personal outrage, I have no basis to argue that speakers such as Rizvi should not be included on campus.

Universities are safe places for expressions of individual thought and differing ideas, even if they may offend us. As long as the speech does not incite violence or hatred, there is really no basis for protest. And that is reasonable; not every opinion will be satisfactory for all of us. The University of Toronto’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that while opinions expressed on campus can sometimes generate controversy, the university will ensure that freedom of speech on all sides is protected.

While Rizvi’s opinions did generate controversy, the backlash is no reason to exclude him from speaking. The university’s statement also notes that, in certain cases, free speech may even supersede mutual respect and civility. So while everyone is allowed to express outrage at such an event, the outrage cannot result in formal action unless the speech directly involves violence or discrimination. While Rizvi’s beliefs may be offensive to Muslim students, there are no grounds on which his invitation to UTM can be officially protested.

Free speech on university campuses is a tricky issue because the line between controversial speech and discrimination is not always clear. It is important to realize that, ultimately, it is university policies around free speech that decide the issue — not student opinion. Free speech includes the freedom to express controversial opinions that may not be agreeable to everyone.

This reminds me of a quote from Daredevil, which suggests that sometimes the division between good and evil is a sharp line and other times it’s a blur. The same principle applies to free speech on campus: it is usually a sharp line in cases of hate speech, but for controversial issues, it is often a blur.

Sharmeen Abedi is a fourth-year Criminology, Sociology, and English student at UTM. She is The Varsity’s UTM Affairs Columnist.

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