The pro-life club on campus claims that it aims to “inspire students at McMaster to think honestly about ethical issues in order to make informed judgements for themselves.” Yet, some of their posters are clearly directed at people with uteruses and the ability to get pregnant who would ever consider an abortion, as well as the idea of bodily autonomy. These sorts of displays go against their club’s mission statement to provide an avenue to make ‘‘informed decisions’’ for themselves.
The recent events have sparked debate on the extent of freedom of speech at Mac and whether we should allow groups that attack women’s rights to express their view in the ways that they do.
Philosophical discussion around personhood is fine, but direct emotional attacks on women which could prove even more damaging for people who have undergone abortions, go beyond the academic nature the club claims to embrace. The club recently organized an event featuring a speaker from the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, an organization responsible for putting up gruesome signs on highways and funding “pro-life trucks” with images of aborted fetuses.
Who the club chooses to associate itself with tells us something about the intentions of their advocacy. The CCBR has constantly attacked the notion of ‘‘choice,’’ even claiming that “pro-choice is no choice.”
Pro-life organizations in Canada hide behind free speech to justify putting signs on bridges and holding them up on sidewalks. It might be hard to tell them to get out of public spaces and to stop harassing women with their signs, but whether this is the case on a university campus is another question.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for the silencing of these groups, or for their ability to do and say whatever they want. Our discourse around the freedom of expression around these issues has to be unpacked before any judgements are made.
Freedom of speech isn’t an absolute right in Canada. It says so in Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government can put into place laws that limit freedom of speech as long as these limits are deemed justified and reasonable. And it’s the Supreme Court of Canada that decides what these vague words really mean. Laws against hate propaganda and defamation are some examples that the Supreme Court has deemed to be reasonable limits to the freedom of expression of Canadians.
The phrase “freedom of speech” is thrown around every time someone questions whether certain groups or people should be allowed to express their view openly even if it causes harm to someone else. The simplest form of this argument goes: what would we be as a democratic society if we didn’t allow people to voice their opinions?
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a legal advocacy group for constitutional rights in Canada, has represented a number of pro-life clubs who have sued their schools for not allowing controversial anti-choice posters to be put up. The JCCF puts out a ranking of universities and student unions based on freedom of speech every year. This year McMaster scored a B in policy and a D in practice, and the McMaster Students Union scored a C in policy and a D in practice. These scores should not be taken at face value. In reading the report issued by the JCCF, it becomes clear that this organization sees freedom of expression as an unlimited right. It condemns McMaster and the MSU for standing by anti-discriminatory policies put in place to create a safe environment, and claims that this indicates MSU’s lack of commitment to free speech.
But it is this sort of thinking that makes the lines between free speech and hateful or harmful speech hard to draw. According to the JCCF, any consideration for hate speech takes away from an institution’s free speech. Is this really the case? The JCCF uses the example of the MSU not allowing a club to put up a poster they thought had questionable information. Does the MSU’s decision in this case say anything about their commitment to free speech, or does it say something about their commitment to not misinform the student body and maintain a comfortable environment?
A similar argument can be made for the infamous “Immigration Watch Canada” group. The organization sends out offensive flyers attacking immigrant communities mostly of Southeast Asian origin. They gave out flyers at York University last year and around Brampton over the summer.
Although none of these posters are explicitly pushing a white supremacist message, they are xenophobic, racist and hateful. Yet, the organization is still allowed to exist in Canada. Why? The argument can be made that it is their right under ‘‘freedom of speech’’ to express this view. Yet, any reasonable person will agree that there is something ethically questionable about this statement. The right of immigrants and visible minorities to not have hateful messages spread about their communities should trump Immigration Watch Canada’s right to express their views.
So what do we value more: a group’s ability to express itself with the aim to take away someone’s rights, or creating a safe space that promotes discussion but censors harassment?