The 2018 Campus Freedom Index (CFI) bestowed the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) an F grade for its lack of free speech protections and a C for its political practices in 2018. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF) sponsors the CFI, an annual assessment of the successes and failures of campus free speech in Canada. But, the CFI is by no means impartial and leans to the right. Its criticism of SSMU merely emphasizes conservatives’ refusal to acknowledge that free speech protects progressives and right-wingers equally.
The CFI points to SSMU’s Equity Policy as its biggest flaw, citing its support for safe spaces and disapproval of microaggressions. These things, the CFI says, hinder free speech. However, while a right to free speech is not explicitly entrenched in SSMU’s constitution, Article 3.2 of the Equity Policy states that the policy shouldn’t detract from students’ right to engage in open discussion of controversial opinions. Safe spaces actually help marginalized people share their stories and opinions, promoting equitable free speech.
Beyond the Equity Policy, the CFI points to SSMU’s politics as another vehicle for suppressing free speech. Taking political stances allegedly diminishes the university’s freedom of expression. SSMU represents the entire student body, but it is an elected body and, therefore, inherently political. The society has a long history of political expression and has explicitly taken an anti-oppressive mandate since 1989. It announced its support for Black Lives Matter in 2016, participated in anti-austerity protests in 2015, and called out McGill’s response to sexual assault reports this past April. All of these political stances actively defend the free speech rights of marginalized people.
Former SSMU vice president External Marina Cupido’s Facebook post about the newly elected Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government was accused of infringing on campus free speech. Cupido faced considerable backlash for calling the CAQ ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic,’ and for alleging that the party has connections to white supremacists. Regardless of their failure to cite their sources or confer with fellow executives, Cupido had a right to take a stance, even on the official SSMU External Affairs Facebook page. The post may have been ill-advised, but they were elected to a political executive office by a majority of voters. Students who did not feel represented by Cupido’s statement should at least respect the result of the democratic process.
The narrative that only leftist voices inhibit freedom of speech is tired and biased. Beyond McGill, conservatives have long bemoaned the plight of free speech on college campuses. One such conservative is Rick Mehta, former professor in Acadia University’s Department of Psychology. In March, Mehta prompted controversy after defending Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak’s right to post racist remarks on her government website. Beyak shared arguments from Canadians criticizing indigenous communities for receiving government aid and asking for reparations for injustices like the residential school system. Statements like hers perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and Sen. Beyak was rightfully removed from the Conservative caucus for platforming them. But, Mehta saw himself as a counterbalance to liberal bias on campus, and so, he stood up for Beyak.
While Mehta said that he does not support racist comments, he attacked the Conservative Party for impeding her right to free speech. But, even if he does not believe in the far-right sentiments that he defends, Mehta was magnifying them. Amplifying hyper-conservative and racist voices does nothing to diversify mainstream conversations—it only reinforces historically-entrenched traditions and beliefs.
Mehta’s story challenges the dominance of conservative ideology in the free speech arena. If right-wing ideologies perpetuate traditional ways of thinking, which have historically excluded marginalized people from public debate, then they stand to hinder free speech equally as much as left-wing ideologies.
The right to free speech does not guarantee freedom from criticism. Conservatives like Mehta and the JCCF need to stop conflating valid criticism of right-wing belief systems with the infringement of fundamental human rights. As much reason as there is to criticize SSMU, claiming that the organization hinders free speech by promoting marginalized voices and leftist politics is absurd. Students should challenge these arguments, which are made in bad faith and without a comprehensive understanding of free speech, to create a productive space for discourse that includes minority voices.