Academic freedom used to be a hallmark of the Canadian university system. Apart from a few fascists, communists and other cranks on campus, everyone recognized that the free and vigorous expression of controversial ideas is essential to the life of the mind and the pursuit of truth.
Today, academic freedom is under attack as never before. On all too many campuses, freedom of expression is trumped by the contemporary canons of political correctness.
Consider, for example, the suppression of debate on abortion and the sanctity of human life. Earlier this year, the Canadian Federation of Students, an organization that purports to represent over half a million students at more than 80 universities and colleges across Canada, expressed support for students’ unions that “refuse to allow anti-choice organizations access to their resources and space.”
In conformity with this resolution, a growing number of students’ unions from Memorial University in Newfoundland to the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, have barred pro-life student organizations from using student facilities. In defending the adoption of this policy at York University, Gilary Massa, vice-president for equity of the York Federation of Students, explained that students will still be allowed to discuss abortion in student space, provided they do so “within a pro-choice realm.”
Massa sees no room for the discussion of abortion from a pro-life perspective. “These pro-life, these anti-choice groups, they’re sexist in nature,” she insists. “The way that they speak about women who decide to have abortions is demoralizing….Is this an issue of free speech? No, this is an issue of women’s rights.”
That’s typical of campus censors: They are very sure that they have an infallible grasp of the truth.
But that’s no excuse for stifling opposing opinions. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill pointed out: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still,” because it would rob both present and future generations “of the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the United States Supreme Court agreed. In his celebrated dissent in the Abrams case, he wrote: “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition.”
Holmes added: “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
The thought police on campus, as in Canada’s so-called human rights tribunals, are bent on stifling the expression of all opinions that they deem liable to expose women, homosexuals, Palestinians or some other favoured group to hatred or contempt. Holmes decried such censorship. He warned: “I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”
Of course, it’s evident that pro-choice zealots have reason to fear that they cannot win in an open and uninhibited public debate on abortion. Now that ultrasound images of babies in the womb are readily available, the more people contemplate the sanctity of nascent human life, the more they are apt to grasp the self-evident truth that all human beings are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; including the right to life.
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