Human Rights Advisory Services

Human Rights Advisory Services
Human Rights Advisory Services

Controversial Speech on Campus

Freedom of Expression vs. Freedom from Discrimination?

The exchange of words, ideas and information fuels the critical thinking and debate that academic institutions hold in such high regard. Students and faculty are encouraged to engage each other in discourse on complex and often controversial issues. But what limits, if any, should there be to the proliferation of speech on campus where there is the potential to offend?

The following section is intended to provide an overview of the issues surrounding this debate and to offer some information regarding the role of the university with regard to controversial expression. This section also provides suggestions to community members interested in bringing speakers or events to campus that may arouse controversy.

The Role of a University

Universities provide a unique service to their communities and to the society at large. Besides being in the business of instructing and disseminating established knowledge, universities also actively commit to the open and sincere testing of ideas and theories. Universities play an important role in providing contexts in which individuals may freely and safely investigate "truth" and actively engage in the pursuit of knowledge. Debate and disagreement are seen as healthy and productive elements of university life. It is in the fulfillment of a university's mission to "let truth and falsehood grapple" that protection of freedom of expression in universities becomes critical. Freedom of expression, however, is not protected where such expression has the intention or effect of inciting hatred and violence.

Queen's requires all students, staff and faculty to abide by regulations such as the Harassment and Discrimination Complaint Policy and Procedure and the University Code of Conduct, which are meant to complement human rights codes and other legal documents. The Harassment and Discrimination Policy specifies that discrimination or harassment based on religion, gender, disability, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation is strictly "unacceptable and constitutes an offence within the university community.[1]"

Queen's also entrenches the freedom "to express [one's] thoughts publicly[2]" and asserts "universities are interested in universal knowledge, including all religious, philosophical and political viewpoints...[3]"

These documents highlight two apparently conflicting ideas. On the one hand, the university claims that protection from discrimination is important, but on the other supports the concept of freedom of speech. It can be argued that the former puts a reasonable limit on the latter. But where is the line to be drawn? And who is to determine where to draw it?

When Freedoms Collide

Sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada prohibit the dissemination of hate speech. Section 318 prohibits the promotion of genocide and Section 319 prohibits the public incitement of hatred. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifies four fundamental freedoms that everyone is able to enjoy, and one of these is the Freedom of Expression.  The ability to disagree with the majority is one of the most important characteristics of a democratic society. Yet, with the growing diversity of this country, Canadians also value the protection from hatred that the Criminal Code offers. It is easy to see how these two well-intentioned ideals may collide with one another. What happens when the words of one appear to promote discrimination against another? Which right is to take precedence? Universities, such as Queen's, that encourage expression from different persons and groups often become forums for debate that centres on these seemingly conflicting freedoms.

What is Hate Speech?

Section 318 of the Criminal Code outlines specific criteria that must be met in order for text to be classified as hate speech. These stipulations try to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is considered while protecting groups from undue harm. Thus, it is possible for speech to seem hateful in content without meeting the strict legal criteria for hate speech. This is not to say that we don't have a right to be outraged by speech that seems disrespectful or demeaning, but that, in some cases, the entitlement to speak one's mind must be met with vigorous disagreement/opposition rather than legal remedies.

* Special thanks to Jaqquie Kiggundu who assisted in the preparation of this guide.

[1] Queen's Code of Conduct revised May 23, 1991.

[2] Statement on the Freedom to Read at Queen's University last amended February 1991.