Alberta’s post-secondary campuses recently adopted the Chicago Principles —a specific kind of commitment to free speech— as per the orders of Kenney’s UCP government. Roberta Lexier from Mount Royal University joins Team Advantage to dig into the matter. What is this sudden concern with free speech about? Don’t conservatives already run most of Alberta’s campuses? Are content warnings really that big of a deal?
Danielle Smith: It does seem to me that what we have right now is a hypersensitive generation that just doesn’t want to be challenged by ideas they disagree with.
Kate: Hello, and welcome to the Alberta Advantage. My name is Kate Jacobson and I host the Alberta Advantage, and joining me today on Team Advantage, we have Levi-
Kate: – Karen-
Kate: – and now three-time guest Roberta Lexier, associate professor at Mount Royal University.
Roberta, thank you for returning to the show one more time and not being frightened by us.
Roberta: Well, thanks for having me back. It’s always such a pleasure.
Kate: I think at this point you’re just an honorary member of Team Advantage and no longer a guest.
Roberta: Oh, yay. [laughs] Oh, that makes me so happy, and all the stuff I have all over my office will prove that point to everybody who comes there.
Kate: So Roberta is joining us today to talk about the Chicago principles, and specifically about the Chicago principles in Alberta. So the United Conservative Party’s 2019 platform plank on postsecondary education included a bit about requiring all universities and colleges to develop, post, and comply with free-speech policies that conform to the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression.
So there was originally a September deadline for this to be implemented in Alberta’s postsecondary institutions, but this deadline has since been extended to November 15. And this follows a similar push by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, led by Doug Ford, who have also pushed for postsecondary institutions to adopt these Chicago principles or face funding cuts.
Now fortunately, Alberta’s postsecondary institutions are not being threatened like that, because their funding has actually already been cut, and we are here today to discuss what this means for postsecondary institutions in Alberta. And starting, I want to ask, like, what are the Chicago principles anyway, what are they supposed to address, and is there really a problem with free speech on Alberta campuses?
Levi: Well, the Chicago principles refer to a committee report put out by the University of Chicago in 2014 that claims to be a commitment to free and open inquiry in all matters, and it states that – and quote – “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”
And it goes on to state that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”
Kate: So it’s basically a kind of free-speech absolutism. It ends up stating that you may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views that you reject or even loathe. It has these very, like, narrow restrictions for free speech, so breaking the law, defaming someone, threats or harassment, invasion of privacy, and breaches of confidentiality are off-limits, but not much else. Maybe sounds pretty reasonable; however, it’s not. But more importantly, like, why do people care about this? What is kind of the context of this?
Karen: Okay, so this got some attention in August 2016 after Trump’s election when John Ellison, dean of students at University of Chicago, sent a letter to students saying, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Kate: I’d love to make a quick note here about the trigger warnings specifically – and Roberta, you might be able to speak more to this, but I started university in 2013, before this was kind of a really big issue and a really big part of the culture war, and I feel like what we would now call trigger warnings were actually very common in a lot of my university classes, even though they weren’t called that. Like, professors would always give us a heads up if we were going to discuss something that was incredibly upsetting or incredibly controversial, and this was basic things like – I studied economics and international relations at university, so, like, if we would be discussing, like, a genocide, a professor would always be like, “Heads up. Next Tuesday we’re going to be talking about the Rwandan genocide,” just so you didn’t, like, walk into class and see a bunch of pictures of it without kind of any preparation.
And then as I went through university it became more and more controversial, and I started to see them less, because they became part of this kind of culture war.
Roberta: Yeah, I mean, it’s a funny thing that there’s a narrative that emerged about these wussy students who can’t handle challenging ideas or difficult subjects and that these trigger warnings or content warnings or safe spaces – however we want to frame them – were really about allowing young people to sort of create a distance for themselves from these difficult issues and difficult conversations.
And I think, first of all, young people are not wusses that can’t handle these things, and in fact, I think we’ve seen the opposite, where it’s young people driving the push for acknowledgment of difficult conversations and difficult topics. But also, I think you’re right, Kate, that we’ve always – or at least as long as I’ve been in universities – had the sense of warning people before we might talk about difficult topics.
I remember a class even when I was in university many, many, many, many decades ago where we were talking about domestic violence, and we got a warning the class before that we were going to be talking about domestic violence and if this is something that would be upsetting for you, be aware of that. You can not show up, however you want to deal with that.
So, I mean, these warnings have been going on for a very long time, but the narrative flipped about these young people who are all so unable to deal with these difficult issues. And I think it also links into that narrative of millennials. It’s all part of that same push for degrading millennials and young people, I think.
Kate: Mm-hmm. I mean, one of the benefits of content warnings of any type is that with most learning it actually behooves you to be prepared for the topic you are going to discuss. I study in my personal intellectual life now topics that are very upsetting, but I don’t just have them, like, thrown at me, kind of like, surprise, you know? When I am going to study them, I think about it and I do it intentionally, and that is the best way to learn, and I think it’s this very, like, anti-intellectual idea that the best way to teach people is to just shock them with things that might be upsetting or triggering.
Karen: Yeah, it’s certainly not a way to learn. It might be helpful for, like, an NGO or something, to show you shocking images, but certainly not for a class, so it doesn’t make sense.
Kate: And this is generally occurring in a context where popular notions of free speech on campus are being informed by a news cycle – almost a post-Trump news cycle, although I really hate the post- and pre-Trump dichotomy – but think of things like protests at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017 which shut down planned appearances by Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.
You know, like, we began to get a lot of news stories and a lot of coverage of college campuses and of controversies about people speaking or not speaking on college campuses, and it began to really drive this cultural narrative, and then all of these things became, like, touchstones, and by your opinion on them you could tell, like, whether someone was a liberal or a conservative, so they became part of this kind of larger culture war, whereas before they’d been quite a niche academic issue, at least in my experience.
Levi: Yeah, and with that as well, like, I think one of the things that we’ve been seeing, especially with the 2017 Berkeley protests, is that this idea of, like, you know, “the students just wanted intellectual safe space,” like, all that kind of rhetoric, is weaponized back at people who are not of, you know, the same type as Milo Yiannopoulos or somebody like that, to give them more academic credibility than they ever would get.
By equating what they’re doing as some sort of tough, intense subject that people just can’t handle, they add their own – or, they add this sort of mythical weight to their arguments. And since, you know, these people are awful and a lot of times they don’t get to speak, they can then just, like, use that to parade around and be like, “No, no, no. I’m actually more than these students can handle, so I’m actually better than anybody.” And they kind of martyr themselves or try to become, like, martyrs to their own cause.
Roberta: Well, I think one of the funny things right now about this free-speech discussion is that we’re starting to see reports that conservative students on campuses feel like they’re being censored or being controlled or other sorts of things, and I think there’s an interesting reality that goes into this news cycle that we’re talking about where these studies are being done. All they are is asking conservative students “Do you feel censored in the classroom?” or “Do you feel like you’re being prevented from discussing a particular topic or taking a particular position?” and many of them are reporting that they do feel that, that they’re being censored, but the reality is that all they’re asking is their feelings, first of all, and that they’re being influenced by a larger cycle of news that’s telling them that they should feel censored and that they should feel repressed, when the reality might be totally different – we just can’t see the other side through these weeds of bad methods.
Kate: Yeah. First of all, facts don’t care about your feelings.
Karen: [disappointed] Oh.
Kate: Second of all, it’s well documented that how people feel about events they have gone through is really heavily influenced by media coverage of those events.
And third of all, I think if that type of self-censorship is happening, it’s happening across the political spectrum. As a woman and a Marxist who studied economics at the University of Calgary, if there was any self-censorship going on in the classroom, I certainly experienced it. Right? I was frequently in classes with professors who literally wrote policy for Stephen Harper, classes where I was the only woman in the class and where everyone else was conservative – outspokenly so – and angling for jobs in the Conservative Party. So, you know, if there is self-censorship happening, certainly left-wing students are experiencing that as well.
Levi: Yeah, I was just going to say, yeah, I studied political science at the U of C as a leftist, and I liked to take a lot of seminars, and being in a seminar room as the only leftist in a class on political philosophy with somebody like Barry Cooper is not the most free space to say what you really are thinking, because those types of ideas that are being censored are pretty widespread amongst a lot of that.
Roberta: Leftists, socialists, feminists – however you want to frame all of us people in the room right here, and many of the people listening to this podcast – we care a lot about free speech, because we’re usually the ones being censored by that free speech, and so I never want to frame this as if I’m opposed to free speech in any way. Whether on campus or elsewhere, obviously I support free speech. I’ve been the sort of negative person in that relationship for a long time.
Kate: Mm-hmm. But what’s happening is not really about free speech. It’s this aspect of conservative mythmaking that doesn’t actually have any bearing in reality. It’s this idea that university campuses are sheltered safe spaces where courageous free-speech champions are barred and violently shut down by antifa supersoldiers when they try to speak the truth. And just, like, this is not real. This is what happens to your brain when you watch Rebel Media too much, or Fox News, but it doesn’t have any actual bearing in reality, and the myth is actually very, very dangerous because it leads to a lot of antidemocratic ideas, and it also leads to a lot of reactionary ideas that are very, very dangerous being given platforms and credibility and legitimacy that they don’t deserve. If you want to yell your fucking theories about whatever, you can go stand on the street corner like everybody else. Like, you don’t need access to the legitimacy of a platform at a postsecondary institution.
So it would behoove us here to kind of take a look at what the reality of postsecondary institutions in Canada actually is. Are university campuses hotbeds of left-wing activism that exclude conservative voices, or do conservatives already have a substantial conservative influence and presence on campuses, and not only that, but are also embedded into departments and institutions?
Karen: Okay, so this won’t surprise any of our longtime listeners from Alberta Advantage. These are the names of the ghouls that you know and love so well.
We’re going to start with Ezra Levant, founder of Rebel Media. He spoke at Mount Royal University in 2015, and he was joined by Derek Fildebrandt, Tom Flanagan, and speakers from Canadian Taxpayers Federation; the Fraser Institute; the Canadian Federation of Independent Business; the Canadian LabourWatch Association, which is an antiunion organization; John Carpay from the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms; and of course, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. So that’s quite a long list, and – yeah.
Kate: Here’s just some fun facts about some of these people.
Karen: Oh, these people? Who are they?
Roberta: We just love these people.
Kate: Yeah, we love them. So Tom Flanagan was a political science professor at the University of Calgary, so he earned a salary paid for by public dollars, and he made his career trying to discredit the idea that First Nations people deserve specific rights for being here when colonization occurred and being here for tens of thousands of years before colonization occurred. He called for the assassination of Julian Assange on live television, advised Stephen Harper’s political campaign, mentored Danielle Smith. He believed reserves should be broken up and sold off into the real estate market, and he suggested that people shouldn’t be jailed for looking at child pornography. The last of those did get him turfed from the political science department, but fortunately he got picked up by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy as a distinguished fellow. So he’s a real piece of work.
Derek Fildebrandt, Alberta’s – everyone’s favorite failson, just the biggest failure Alberta has ever produced, you may remember him from doing illegal poaching, illegally renting out his taxpayer-subsidized apartment on Airbnb, hitting a woman’s van and then, like, running away from it. He’s been involved in lots of bizarre, petty scandals, and now he’s trying to relaunch the Western Standard. So …
And John Carpay, I believe, also once compared the Pride flag to a swastika.
Kate: So that’s just some of the things the people on those list are getting up to. It’s worth noting that they spoke at Mount Royal University. They were accorded the prestige and the platform of speaking at a postsecondary institution, and they were not shut down by anyone.
Levi: Well, and one other point on Tom Flanagan, even though he’s still listed on the faculty at The School of Public Policy, but he actually – after those remarks by him regarding child pornography, he was made Professor Emeritus of the Department of Political Science at the U of C after he was forced to retire.
Kate: In a similar vein, Jordan Peterson, who is most famous for disrespecting trans people and refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns, spoke at the University of Calgary in 2017 with absolutely no problem along with Jason Kenney and W. Brett Wilson, who has publicly called for environmental activists to be hanged for treason, and also speakers from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Manning Centre. And he was not protested at the time – much frankly, I think, to our shame as people in this city.
2018 saw an event at Mount Royal University with Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell; conservative Calgary city councillor Jeromy Farkas; reps from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation; the Calgary Chamber of Commerce; the Canadian Federation of Independent Business; and of course, John Carpay of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
So, I mean, conservatives in Alberta are frequently speaking at university campuses. They have a substantial influence; they have a substantial presence; they are not being shut down in any way; and yet this narrative exists that their ideas are somehow being unfairly marginalized or maligned by left-wing students with colored hair who are obsessed with pronouns and whatever the hell people think about university students these days.
Kate: Pretty bad.
Levi: Well, on the Jordan Peterson thing, the idea that somebody like him was able to get to where he is now in terms of his celebrity is, uh – he was just an asshole to his students. Like, that’s it. Like, he was – it is the most, like, blatant weaponized victimhood of all time. It’s like, no, you were just a professor that was refusing to be courteous to your students.
Karen: And I assume he was collecting his professor salary the entire time.
Levi: Oh, yeah.
Karen: Yeah, of course.
Levi: Yeah. Yeah. At U of T, too, so he must have been getting a – yeah – big paycheck.
Karen: Pretty good. Pretty good.
Roberta: Well, and one of the things I find interesting about a bunch of these academics is that they’re not particularly well respected within their academic fields either.
Levi: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, no kidding.
Roberta: I mean, Jordan Peterson couldn’t sell a book to save his life until this happened, and now he’s on the bestsellers list.
Karen: He also has his recent book about the meat diet. Extremely strange.
Roberta: Did you see the photo on the cover of that? It’s incredibly disturbing.
Karen: Oh, yeah. Ugh.
Levi: It’s his daughter. Yeah.
Kate: Yeah, first of all, there’s a lot of Freud going on there, and a lot of gender. And second of all, if you agree with Jordan Peterson, I do suggest that you follow his diet where you only eat meat.
Levi: Yeah, exactly.
Roberta: Please, please shorten your life by a little bit. I’d appreciate that.
But many, many of these people are not particularly well respected in their fields, and I think what often then happens is that they get this level of recognition that they’ve been searching for their whole academic careers, and now they also have a group of them that are all in the same boat and so they all have sort of joined together in this great path towards free expression and free speech on campus.
Kate: And in a material sense, something that I think is really important to bring up here is that conservatives not only speak on campuses, they are not only influential on campuses, they are also embedded into campus departments and institutions.
So here at the University of Calgary where we record this podcast, The School of Public Policy was established in 2008 with a donation of $4 million from James Palmer, who was one of Canada’s leading oil and gas lawyers. At the time, all three major Alberta political parties were calling for higher royalties, so there becomes this issue of the public perception of the oil industry of this idea of who will speak for the oil industry, and with Palmer’s money, the university hired Jack Mintz, who is a tax specialist of the corporate-sponsored C.D. Howe Institute and a really heavy corporate influence in both of these institutions, and the connections to one company in particular, Imperial Oil, are really, really quite extensive.
And I don’t want to suggest here that industry money can buy supportive academic research like it’s a simple transaction, but it’s more that academics that are sympathetic to business and conservative viewpoints which are already embedded within the university are recruited for these positions. We’ve actually talked about this before on the podcast, but Jack Mintz himself is an Imperial Oil director, and he’s a director of the Imperial Oil Foundation. It doles out six to seven million dollars a year to organizations and communities where Imperial Oil operates to build goodwill, and like all directors, Mintz is obligated to advance the best interests of the company. Right? So as head of The School of Public Policy, his loyalties seem very murky, because he has obligations as a director of the Imperial Oil Foundation to advance their interests, and those are directly – in my mind, those directly counter his academic interests as someone who is heading up an institution like that.
Roberta: Well, and it gets even worse with the former president of the University of Calgary, who, in fact, was investigated by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and found to have a massive conflict of interest in her relationship with Enbridge and Enbridge’s funding of many programs on this campus.
Kate: Yeah, so Elizabeth Cannon was on the board of directors of Enbridge Income Fund Holdings at the same time Enbridge was setting up a school of corporate sustainability or something like that through the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, and the academics who were involved in that project said that they felt pressure from university administration that their research conformed to what Enbridge wanted from it, because they were funding it, and because Elizabeth Cannon herself had obligations and responsibilities to Enbridge. Their Income Fund Holdings is a company.
And it’s also worth pointing out here that this always happens when public perception of the oil industry isn’t so great. The whole reason Enbridge was doing this in the first place is that Line 3 was spewing oil all over northern Minnesota at the time, right? So these institutions are set up by conservative interests and by capital in order to create this perception of public goodwill and the legitimacy of academic institutions.
Karen: So in a slightly different turn of events, when the University of Alberta awarded an honorary doctorate to David Suzuki, the Dean of Engineering of the University of Alberta felt really threatened, so he had to write a letter about how the U of A needed to cultivate closer ties to the fossil fuel industry. Go figure. Jason Kenney called the letter “a brave statement.”
Kate: Well. Can you imagine anything braver than being the Dean of Engineering at the University of Alberta and writing a letter about how the fossil fuel industry is good actually? Truly the hero we deserve.
Levi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and, like, this goes to show that there’s not, like – in instances like this, there’s not really anything that they’re worried about more so than they see it as an opportunity to advance themselves. Like, they’re not really worried that the oil industry is going to kick back at the University of Alberta or to the government and then they’re going to get their funding cut or any actual material detriment to themselves. It’s more of a, he’s going to make this public statement so that he really puts himself out there as, like, a big champion of the fossil fuel industry for some reason, so it’s all incentive and it’s all advancement for them, rather than an actual warding off of anything bad happening to them.
Roberta: Well, and the funny thing is, though, that the oil companies and others will threaten to pull funding and other things away from the institution as a way to try and keep everybody in line. I mean, we all know that those threats are meaningless and that they don’t actually amount to much, but at the same time they will hold this cudgel over the university and say, “Unless you support our sadly flailing industry that doesn’t have any other supporters anywhere else, we will cut grants or funding,” but the reality is they’re not going to do that, for the reasons that Kate mentioned before – that they have a real material interest in the legitimacy of an institution like a university.
Kate: Mm-hmm. Oil companies use the legitimacy of universities to buy public support and to buy consensus for these projects that are otherwise massively unpopular and face massive opposition and resistance, particularly from environmental groups and from Indigenous peoples in North America.
Kate: When it comes to looking at students on campus and whether they are all militant left-wing radicals, it’s worth pointing out here that what passes for the organized voice of students – student unions – these are organizations and institutions that are not particularly radical, and they offer very muted opposition, if they offer any opposition at all.
Roberta: This is one of the reasons I studied student movements in the 1960s when I was doing my graduate work, is because I was a student activist and didn’t have that history. I new stuff had happened before, because you hear these stories about that crazy radical ’60s, but I had no idea how to organize or what to do or what had worked before, what hadn’t worked before, what are the strategies and tactics we could use, and so I thought that was my way in to understanding that, but of course by the time I then had that knowledge, I was well out of the place where I would have been helpful as an activist, and now it’s only on the other end that we have to do this.
But also, there’s this divide between student unions and student administrative councils, and even if they’re called a students’ union, they may be acting as a student administrative council, which is more about administering all the services that the student union has to deal with – so, the food court that you – this building that you own that we’re sitting in, the newspaper, the – all the different services, plus all the committees and all that kind of work, whereas student unions were originally intended to be much more aggressive and radical and bring a political perspective to student organizing.
In Alberta, the problem is most of the student unions are much more student administrative council style, and they get into this work for, like you said, networking, meeting politicians, wearing a suit and tie. They’re mostly men wearing their suit and tie to these meetings with ministers, and they feel important and they feel heard, and then it very much limits their activism.
Kate: If you are a student or you are involved in a students’ union and you are listening to this, please get your students’ union to get organizers and to hire organizers and to form an organizing department. It is absolutely ludicrous to me that student unions in this province have as much money as they do and don’t hire organizers to facilitate that process to keep some of the knowledge of the hard skills that organizing requires. Please do this. Please.
Roberta: And call us, if you need to.
Kate: Yeah, call me. [laughs]
Roberta: I’m happy to help.
Kate: So student unions in Alberta – they’re not radical. They’re offering very muted opposition, if there’s any opposition at all, which is to say that not only is this myth of left-wing militant students true on an aggregate level, it’s also true on an organizational level.
And that plays into the next point that I’d really like to make here, which is that controversies over free speech on campus are largely manufactured by right-wing actors. I’m thinking here of John Carpay and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Every year, it publishes a yearly Campus Freedom Index, which makes me want to vomit just saying that.
Levi: I remember getting it. I remember getting it, yeah. And every students’ union president gets a letter with their own ranking, and I remember-
Karen: Oh, dear God.
Levi: – I opened it and threw it immediately in the trash.
Levi: I went and showed everybody and said, “I just want you guys to know that I’ve got this and it’s going right where it belongs.” Like, see you later. We got a C, and it was like, oh, like, I wish we could get an F. Like, if only it made you guys madder.
Karen: So, like, reverse feedback.
Levi: Yeah, exactly.
Kate: It’s like getting an F from the NRA.
Levi: [laughs] Yeah. Cool!
Kate: Yes! So this Campus Freedom Index pays attention to right-wing causes, things like antiabortion activists, but the website has no mentions of honestly what are the true issues of free speech on campus getting shut down, which are, in my experience, union activists and Palestinian solidarity work. And the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms does not give a rat’s ass about any of this, and neither do any of these free-speech actors.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms also proposed a draft legislation called “An Act to Protect Free Expression at Alberta’s Public Colleges and Universities” in May 2019, which is the month after the UCP were elected. We’ve mentioned this before, but John Carpay is a real piece of work. He compared Pride flags to swastikas, as I said. I would just like to note that this took place in February of this year. Not that that was, like, an acceptable thing to say in the ’90s, but, like, he said that this year.
Levi: Well, no, he said it before, and then he got, like – there was a bunch of stories about it, and everybody – and then he did it again.
Kate: Wow, incredible.
Karen: He’s like, “I haven’t changed at all.”
Roberta: Doubled down.
Levi: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Kate: I will never learn-
Kate: – I will never learn from my mistakes. And he also famously challenged the Alberta NDP’s government’s gay-straight alliance legislation with a charter challenge, and he claimed that GSAs were “ideological sex clubs” that were “requiring and facilitating the clandestine teaching of a government-promoted sexual ideology,” which is a fucked thing to say.
Roberta: I also find the name of his organization, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, particularly apparent in the sense of right-wingers being very good at finding names for things that sound really good in theory and on paper, but are really the actual opposite of those things.
Karen: Yeah, they do have a talent.
Roberta: They’re very good at it.
Kate: Returning to something we talked about a little bit earlier in the podcast, the language of “triggered” and of “safe spaces,” this really has to do with very specific circumstances and topics. So people who have posttraumatic stress disorder can experience, like, sudden anxiety responses, and these are very physiological, and it’s about encountering subject matter that is related to trauma, so this could be trauma like violence, accidents, sexual violence, death. And the purpose of a content warning at the beginning of a text or a lecture is to advise people with a history of this specific type of trauma that a certain subject matter is going to be discussed, and it allows you to prepare for it or to exit the conversation.
We have content warnings all over our society. We have ratings on movies. We have, “The following program discusses mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised,” when you watch TV, and it’s because, you know, if you’re with your kids or you are not prepared for that kind of subject matter, it is a courteous part of living in a society with other people to just give them a kind of, like, heads up.
The other thing is that we live in a society that, frankly, is not particularly good. You know, one in three women experience some form of sexual violence in their life. One in six men experience some form of sexual violence in their life. Almost 40% of adult Canadian women have had the experience of sexual assault since the age of 16. The majority of women have had experiences with domestic violence. Somewhere between 15 and 25% of women who are in college or in university experience some form of sexual assault during university, and a recent CBC survey has found that four in 10 boys are physically assaulted at school.
So, like, we live in a society that exposes people to trauma on a fairly regular basis, and I think it is a dereliction of our responsibility to others as human beings to turn around and refuse to accommodate people who have been exposed to the trauma that is baked into our society.
Karen: Yeah, and this is in Alberta, which it does have – the province does have, like, higher-than-other-Canadian-provinces instances of some of these, like, acts of violence, which is unfortunate. But, I mean, all Canadian provinces are pretty safe and stable in terms of we’re not experiencing wars or other traumatizing events, so you can imagine and extrapolate that if you are experiencing that or you came from a place like that that it would be extremely extra-courteous to say, you know, this might remind you of experiences that you’ve had in your life or things that are closer to you than maybe we have just here domestically.
Kate: At the end of the day, it’s just, I don’t know how to explain to some people that you should care about others, and you should care about how others are feeling and what their lives are like. And that is at the root of my support of things like content warnings, is that I care about other people, and if I am having an intellectual or a learning experience, I want other people to be able to participate in that with me, both because I care about them and also because that enriches my intellectual and academic experiences.
Roberta: I think one of the frustrating things about all these discussions for me is that they indicate a surprising – or maybe it’s not that surprising – lack of empathy, that really, people are being dehumanized. It’s “Well, we don’t care if you’re affected by that” or “We don’t care if that hurts your feelings,” or more importantly, we don’t care that that’s actually going to have some sort of material violence when we say certain things.
There’s just that total lack of empathy about other people that we have to live in the world with, and I don’t understand – I mean, maybe this is the socialist in me coming out, but I just don’t understand how we can care so little about other people that we don’t even want to give them a heads up when we’re dealing with a difficult conversation that they might have difficulty with. It’s just – it’s just mind-boggling to me, that lack of empathy.
Kate: Also, too, as I said earlier in the podcast, this stuff is pretty standard. Like, if you’ve ever had a job, you’ve had an HR department, and the HR department has been like, “You can’t discriminate or humiliate or harass other people at work, because it is inappropriate and unethical to do that in the workplace.” You know? Like, it is pretty kind of bog-standard stuff, like, across our society.
The current free-speech debate is about platforming and emboldening right-wing arguments that dehumanize minorities and vulnerable groups. It is the “just asking questions” about who deserves basic rights and protections.
Roberta: Mm-hmm. And I think this is one of the things, again, that frustrates me about this conversation, is that universities also have a responsibility to equity, diversity, and inclusion. It’s right in all of our strategic plans. It’s in our HR documents. It’s in everything – that we have this responsibility and commitment. So with that, students should expect a safe space, and I don’t mean safe in the sense that it’s safe from difficult topics or challenging ideas, but safe from physical or emotional or other threats to their identities, to their histories, to their sense of being.
And it’s really a question of which rights trump other rights: Does the right to free speech trump the right to security of person? For instance, we have a lot of antichoice activists on campus all the time – I’m sure you do at University of Calgary also – and they are granted a space on our campus because we’re a public institution and they get access to public spaces, and I have a problem with this in the sense that what you’re telling me is that their right to free speech – quote, unquote, “free speech” – trumps my right to security of person that the Supreme Court ruled is part of this choice debate.
The Supreme Court ruled that abortion has to be allowed in Canada. It is a requirement under our constitutional rights. And so they’re saying their right to free speech trumps my right to security of person, and now we have to have a conversation about which rights are more important than other rights. Does free speech trump diversity? Does free speech trump multiculturalism? Does free speech trump the treaties? All sorts of issues that are based in our constitution, we now have to start disaggregating them and saying this one’s more important than this other one. I don’t understand how free speech gets to be at the top of that list.
Kate: And that gets into what the free-speech debate has turned into, is it’s become about our right to say whatever you want, but ultimately that’s not what free-speech on university campuses is about. What free speech on university campuses is about is having a right to have a huge platform to say those things. No one is stopping you from going and just saying, I guess, like, slurs on a CTrain platform or on a street corner, but it’s different when you’re being, like, granted a platform and the legitimacy of an institution with which to say those things.
One of the things that has been interesting to me about this debate is that we’ve almost reached this point where protesting people that you don’t like is seen to be an obstruction or an affront to their free speech, which is very odd to me, because saying that I can’t protest speakers that I find distasteful or hateful in some way is actually an obstruction of my freedom of speech. Like, I have the right to protest and to assemble and to say what I like about those people and how dogshit I think they are.
Roberta: Well, and another piece of the Chicago principles that seems to be getting forced upon us is this idea that we are also expected to engage and debate with these individuals that we may not want to debate and engage with. I mean, it’s one thing to say people can come to campus and talk and do their thing. It’s another thing to say I, as a university professor on that campus, now have to engage in a conversation with those people, or I’m now violating their right to free speech, because that’s a piece of this: that I am being forced to debate and engage with, or I’m now in violation of the Chicago principles.
And I would argue that’s a violation of my rights. I get to decide if I’m going to engage or not with these debates and these issues. You can’t force me to or not, just as I have the right to protest or somehow obstruct some sort of event. That’s my right to free speech, so whose rights are getting trampled?
Levi: Yeah, and if we are to take a lot of these right-wing arguments to their sort of logical base where they base it on a lot of legal principles, constitutional principles, and that sort of thing, what Kate’s talking about and the right to protest, like, the legal history of what free speech is is more in protecting what Kate’s talking about than it is what they’re talking about.
Like, the right to free speech is the actual right to go and have some opposition to different political ideas and different things happening in society and to not have those closed down, and to be able to go out and protest and those sorts of things is way more in line with what those legal principles were put in place to protect in the first place.
Kate: Well, the Chicago principles are very focused on individuals, but individuals can’t really suppress the rights of others. Like, that’s not how free speech works. If I say something and someone is like, “Kate, shut the fuck up,” I’m not being oppressed. Like, I’m not having my free speech rights trampled on. It’s about the way in which the state relates to me.
Roberta: The state can’t violate your free speech.
Roberta: I, as a person – I can violate them all over the place.
Kate: Exactly. And by the way-
Roberta: That’s not how it works.
Kate: – if I tell the University of Calgary I want to have a Leap Manifesto reading series on campus and they say no, it’s actually not a violation of my free-speech rights. They don’t have to give me a platform. And for the record, that is the type of thing that is way more likely to get denied a platform at the University of Calgary than if I wanted to talk about how I’m measuring the skulls of different people and doing phrenology.
It’s just like, when was the last time on a university campus there was a public forum on eliminating private property rights or setting a maximum wage or incarcerating high-income earners who do tax evasion or restricting advertising and marketing space in the public realm? For all that universities are supposed to be these hotbeds of left-wing ideas, I never saw any of those when I attended university. I had – like, how many radical left professors did any of us have, or how many even moderate left professors? I had one professor who said he used to be into trade unions.
Levi: Used to be into … mm-hmm.
Kate: Just – you know? It’s like, people have – it’s like, people think we still live in the 1960s and everyone on university campuses is constantly, like, protesting imperialism in Southeast Asia, and that’s just not the material reality that exists on university campuses anymore.
Roberta: It also wasn’t in the 1960s.
Roberta: Even then they talked about the apathy of left-wing students-
Roberta: – and now we’re dominated by a conservative majority. This is never – I mean, it’s the same thing over and over again, but absolutely – I mean, I wanted to ask all of you if you ever had a leftist professor, because I – I mean, I went to the University of Regina, which had a left-wing political science department it was well-known for in the ’60s, but when I was there they were in the process of weeding them out so that they could have a, quote, “balanced” department, so we weren’t just being – I don’t know – brainwashed, I guess, by these leftie professors. And most of my colleagues are not radicals. They’re not even moderates, by a large extent.
Karen: Yeah. So I guess I had a bit of a different experience. I didn’t go to university in Alberta, but going to an art college on the East Coast I certainly had a lot of, like, activist or radical professors who were art instructors. But again, this goes back to the platforming idea, because none of these people were well known. They didn’t do public presentations. If they have an art exhibit, there’s very little biographical information, and the artwork that they were presenting usually didn’t have any relationship to what their outlook was.
Levi: I’ve had one professor that was a self-described communist, and it was, like, a young instructor, and it was my last course at the university, and it was like, oh my goodness, this has been here the whole time.
But other than that, it was like – not only is there so many, like, right-wing professors, and especially at the poli-sci department at the U of C, but they’re very outspoken in the public sphere. Like, they’re very much putting their opinions out there. They get quoted by the Herald and they get quoted by different media outlets all the time, so not only do you hear it in the classroom, you’re sort of being told that these professors have their ideas not only – they – well, you know they suck, because you can hear them in their lectures, but you know that they’re given a lot of credence in the public realm, and that’s – it’s kind of disheartening as, like, a leftist in a program like that.
Roberta: Even if there are radicals on campus; even though we’re told we’re amongst a whole bunch of us, apparently; many of us do self-censor, because we’re the only actual radicals on campus.
Karen: Oh, exactly.
Roberta: We’re told we’re everywhere, but unless I’m hiding in a corner and nobody’s managed to find me in the 20 years I’ve been in universities, I don’t know where they all are, and I’m pretty outspoken and public about it, so I feel like people would’ve found me.
Kate: I also want to point out that capital is often really used to shut down left-wing speech on university campuses, to its own benefit. Like, honestly, you want to see how – if you want to see the real free-speech problem on a university campus, try saying “Free Palestine” or try to organize a union, and then you’ll see what the actual free-speech problem on a college campus is, because when groups are seen to be objectionable, they’re not, like, shut down as in “You can’t do this,” but they will be shut down in a really underhanded way.
This happened when I was a student at the University of Calgary, which is, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights was handed a massive security bill by the university for an event because it was controversial or dangerous, which is just a way of saying it was about Palestinians and there was Arab students involved, that they could never, ever in a million years afford to pay. It was tens of thousands of dollars. And of course, the university didn’t tell them they couldn’t have the event – they just put completely unreasonable restrictions on the event that meant the students themselves had to shut it down.
There are SLAPP lawsuits that target left-wing and antifascist activists. A friend of the podcast, Michael Bueckert, is currently being sued by the president of a free-speech club at the University of Ottawa for accurately describing him as alt-right, and there are also blacklists created that target left-wing students and faculty – things like Turning Point, Canary Mission, Professor Watchlist.
Roberta: One thing I want to say about these watchlists – I don’t know from the student perspective, but I know from the faculty perspective that these actually are quite intimidating in lots of ways, and in particular, we’re living in a time of precarious labor everywhere, including on university campuses, and a lot of the instructors at universities are in these precarious positions and can be let go at the drop of a hat, and many rely very heavily on student evaluations and other sorts of performance evaluations, and if you end up on a blacklist – one of these watchlists – as a leftie agitator, that might threaten your future on a university campus.
I mean, I have tenure and I don’t censor myself, but I know many people who have warned me about that and, especially before I had tenure, said, “You should watch what you say,” and I said, “Well, you get what you get. If you don’t like it, then maybe don’t give me tenure. Like, I’m not going to pretend to be something else.” But the reality is that for most academics this is a very tenuous time, and they really do face major repercussions with these blacklists and these other kind of watchlists that are happening.
And we live with very difficult material times right now. We’re in these very, very difficult times, and I think it’s very difficult for students to deal with the repercussions of that in the long term, and I think – I mean, if you’re going to be a political activist and work in that world, it might not affect you in the same way as it might others, but many students are going to be self-censoring, because they’re told all the time that a job is, first of all, incredibly important to themselves and their identity. They’re going to need that job to pay off their student loans.
But the reality is that there’s not a lot of jobs that are going to be very secure or stable, and so people are going to be putting everything to the back burner to put their best foot forward, and that might mean limiting the voice that they use on campus.
And one of the funniest things about these free-speech discussions is that the impression that we would get is that academics who study outdated methods like phrenology or other sorts of maybe disputed methods and research interests do not get that same level of censorship or any real repercussions to that, but leftie academics definitely do, and are told all the time, you know, when applying for international or national grants, maybe pull back-
Levi: Yeah. Yeah. Grants, a big thing. Yeah. A hundred percent.
Roberta: – pull back some of that language. I mean, I applied for this grant for this project I’m working on on the Lewis family, which are not particularly radical as a family, but I was basically told, like, there’s no way that’s going to happen, pull back on some of that language. And I thought – I mean, as I’ve said, I don’t play that game. I’m not willing to do it. But I’m also in a tenured position and don’t need to worry about it in the same way, and so the irony is that those who are being censored are not the ones claiming censorship, and in fact, it’s the reverse.
Kate: In conclusion, why should we regulate speech at universities? What is our basic argument here?
Roberta: So one of my more, perhaps, controversial positions on this is that I don’t think universities are just general public space. I think people would disagree with me about that, but I think universities are intended as a differential type of public space. If you want to say anything you want, go to a public square. We have lots of them in Calgary. They’re not used for that purpose, necessarily, but that’s why the public square exists: so that anybody can go out, stand on their soapbox – this is where that term comes from – and you can talk to the crowds and you can try and convince them of your positions.
To me, universities are a different kind of space. They are a place where discussion is intended to be grounded in academic freedom and a creation and dissemination of knowledge based on reasoned discourse, rigorous and extensive research, scholarship, and peer review. And I think that makes it different than any other public space where you can just say whatever you want.
And Levi, you mentioned earlier that kind of legitimacy of a university campus. That legitimacy comes from a discourse and debate grounded in these concepts of rigorous debate; rigorous research; actually spending the time building that base of knowledge, to be able to then think and criticize and challenge these things. It’s not just about running in and screaming whatever thing you want and then running back out the door. That is not what we do at universities.
But I think this, then, challenges some of the understanding of what universities are meant for these days. The universities are seen as job training and that they’re intended to give you that leg up in the professional world, to teach you how to be a worker in that world, and that doesn’t leave a lot of space for that debate and discussion and critique that I think is actually at the core of universities.
Levi: There’s a reason that it’s not just a convention center. Like, because that’s a lot of what free-speech people are saying universities should be. It’s just sort of like a place with nice facilities where you’re able to go and say whatever you want.
But if you’re somebody that is going to university or has already completed university or thinking about it, if you want to have any pride in what kind of school you’re going to, having that sort of bare minimum of at least understanding that these facilities and this space is – like, even if there are academics that have controversial ideas for some reason, if they’re academics that are putting forward a good-faith argument, then sure. But if it’s just for the sake of riling people up, it’s a disgrace that they should even be considered in the first place, and if you’re a student, you should find that very disgraceful as well.
Kate: Oh, yeah. It’s worth pointing out that, like, 75% of these free-speech people are just, like, grifters.
Levi: Yeah. A hundred percent cranks.
Kate: You know? Like, the whole thing is just, like, a massive grift to, like, make money off people whose brains have been melted by Rebel Media. It’s literally just, like, a façade of acceptability for their fascist views and a way to sell, like, weird fascist books, and books about how you should only eat meat, or whatever the fuck. Yes, we should hate these people, but we should also, I think, be kind of dismissive and contemptuous of them, because it is just a fucking grift.
Levi: Yeah. Like that TA in Ontario.
Roberta: Lindsay Shepherd.
Levi: Lindsay Shepherd. Yeah.
Levi: Like, she completely turned – it was like, oh, maybe she just didn’t realize that wasn’t able to go with whatever academic career was going through, but it was like, it was easy for her to just shift into being somebody who is just making all this money doing all these things across – all these events across the country and to have all these speaking engagements and on the media and everything like that. It was, like, immediate. It’s an easy grift for people that are just completely shameless.
Roberta: Well, I think – you know, a friend of mine said to me that she has a different position on free speech on campus, which is that we should allow all these people onto campus and let our students see what idiots look like and to learn how to deal with idiots in the real world. And my response was twofold. One, we have the Internet for that, and I think we get as much of that as you want, and we can teach our students, I think, through other venues to be able to figure out how to identify a grifter and respond to that, and I don’t think we need universities to do that work.
And secondly, I think the legitimacy part that Levi mentioned is so incredibly important: that as soon as we give that space to people, they gain a legitimacy that they wouldn’t otherwise have. This is why they want – as Kate said, this is why they want on campus. They could do this work in a public square. They could do it, as Levi said, at a convention center. They do it all the time online. But they want on campus for a very particular reason, and that is the legitimacy. And I don’t think we give those kinds of people legitimacy on our campuses. I think that’s the part that’s a problem to me. As soon as we do, we’re saying that it has that same level of in-depth research and peer review and other sorts of things in it, and we’re giving it a legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve.
Kate: I want to emphasize, once again, because I think this is very important – and it is obvious, and it is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel – but you will absolutely see so incredibly clearly that all the people who care about free speech only care about it as an ideological cudgel to force reactionary ideas into the public sphere. As soon as there is a free-speech issue that isn’t about right-wing issues, that isn’t about saying, like, the “truth” about other races or trans people or whatever the hell …
Picketers at Hotel Georgia in Vancouver are being faced with injunctions right now because the picket lines are making too much noise. That is such a clear-cut case of a free-speech issue if I ever heard one, is people who are on strike against their employer are being literally told to sit down and shut up because they’re making too much noise. And do any of the free-speech hacks in Canada give a single flying fuck about hotel workers on strike in Vancouver? No. Zip, zero, nada. They do not care at all. And that, to me, just – and you can see that again and again and again, and it illustrates to me so clearly that this is all just a façade through which ideas that, if they had to be debated and taken on their own merits, are honestly incredibly unpopular, can make their way into the public sphere and can gain the legitimacy of an issue that has to be debated.
Karen: So is the university a place to debate whether or not the earth is flat or whether or not gravity is a real force? Is climate change real? Is it an actively occurring phenomenon? Whether or not vaccines work?
Levi: Well, I think that just completely goes into exactly everything that we’ve been saying so far, is that some of these things are obviously – obviously – untrue and complete BS, and it’s something that we shouldn’t even – there are some things that at face value it’s obvious should never be allowed on a university campus, because, like, we’ve said a couple times the only way that those things have any kind of, quote, unquote, “academic weight,” is if they’re allowed to be said at university campuses on these platforms.
But there’s other things that even if they are, like, a little bit more niche and a little bit more controversial, that we can all look at it and be like, no, that’s obvious BS. If it is an academic argument, it’s like, well, make it in academic circles. You don’t need to have a platform to speak to a bunch of students who might not actually have the training to understand the niche sort of aspects of that academic position.
Roberta: Well, and I think this is kind of getting at one of my positions on this topic, which is that it depends how you’re approaching these issues. I actually do think we can have a lot of these discussions and debates on campus, as long as we do them in a good-faith way that is grounded in academic arguments and evidence. So I think we could have a discussion about – not whether gravity is real or not. That’s a bad-faith argument. We know gravity is real. The good-faith argument is: how do we know gravity is real? What’s the science behind that? Where did we figure it out? Here’s some history. Here’s the way we do it. Here’s some experiments to learn that gravity actually works.
Kate: How did people conceptualize gravity through space and time? Et cetera, et cetera.
Roberta: Right. How did they understand it before it was a known thing? Things were still dropping from the sky. How did we talk about it? Those kinds of thing.
Vaccines – sure, let’s have a conversation about whether vaccines work or don’t work, but it’s not about bringing in anti-vaxxers to promote conspiracy theories. It’s about teaching people about how vaccines work and why they do, and why they might not in certain contexts, and other sorts of things.
It’s not about the topic, from my perspective. It’s about the approach to that topic: is it good faith or is it bad faith, and is it about an academic conversation, or is it about tilting at windmills and setting up strawmen to try and push a particular perspective?
Kate: There’s this learned naïveté among the part of people who host these things that is about refusing to see bad-faith actors as bad-faith actors. Someone who is a noted transphobe like Meghan Murphy is not engaging in conversations about, like, what does it mean to be trans? What does it mean to be non-binary? How do different people experience these things? How is gender experienced before colonization and after colonization in different places in the world? All these interesting ways of talking about this issue. She is someone who is a transphobic person who is trying to push an agenda of anti-trans hatred, and it’s very clear that’s what she’s trying to do if you just google her.
Kate: Like, there’s – but there’s this persistent refusal in service of power and in service of capital to refuse to see these bad-faith actors as bad-faith actors.
Roberta: Mm-hmm. They’re just having a conversation, asking the difficult questions. Why can’t we all just ask the difficult questions? Why don’t you want to know the difficult answers?
Kate: So in conclusion, free speech is just an ideological cudgel. It is used divorce unpopular and reactionary views into the public sphere so they can gain the legitimacy of having access to postsecondary spaces and to university spaces.
However, we believe that free speech should be a leftist issue, and you can see this in the way that Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions is so harshly reacted to and is so strongly shut down by the powers that be. You can see this by the $30 million war room that Jason Kenney is setting up to silence environmentalists. You can see this in the way that picketers are served with injunctions that restrict the levels of noise they are allowed to make, the places they are allowed to be. And we can’t let reactionaries have the entire terrain on this issue and get away with using free speech as a façade of acceptability for their fascist views.
Roberta, thank you so much for coming back to the Alberta Advantage and sharing your thoughts about the Chicago principles on Alberta post-secondary institutions.
Roberta: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, and I’m excited to just be a normal guest now.
Kate: So does anyone else have any other final thoughts on free speech, things they would like to say?
Levi: Yeah, I’ve got just one more thing to s-
Kate: Just kidding.
Kate: Free speech is over. It’s canceled. The Alberta Advantage is in charge now, and free speech on university campuses is outlawed and banned.
On behalf of myself and everyone else at Team Advantage, have a great time out there. Goodbye.
Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at ricochet.media.
Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits, and as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at patreon.com/albertaadvantage.
Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there. [end]