Sheldon Levy: Why I defended freedom of speech on campus

Toronto Star / January 26 – Writing in the Toronto Star, Sheldon Levy, past-president of Ryerson University, describes the university president’s challenge in defending freedom of expression on campus and why it is essential for universities and beyond.

“On many occasions, I gave my administrator’s green light to events featuring speakers whose ideas I personally loathed,” Levy writes. “And I did so because freedom of speech is a core defining value for any free society. Democracy cannot function without it.”

He argues free expression is also vital for the university as it is “the place where free speech is tested, in an atmosphere of serious discussion, with robust argumentation and counter-examination.”

Levy’s experience is that the call to restrict speech on campus often comes from marginalized groups who want a campus that is free of intimidation and discrimination. “This is a genuine concern, and there are many ways in which universities can better address systemic discrimination within their institutions”, Levy says.

“But a university cannot protect marginalized groups from exposure to ideas, even oppressive or discriminatory ones. What it can do is ensure there is space to counter oppressive ideas with the passions of reason and intellect.”

He admits frustration and anger over the fact that oppressive ideas can never be eradicated but must be fought over and over again. “The best way to ensure that an oppressive idea will thrive is to suppress it,” Levy writes.

He argues that, when suppressed, those who support oppressive ideas simply operate in the shadows, “reaching out from their hiding place to find like-minded people and continue building their following.” In the meantime, he says, “supporters of progressive ideals, sheltered from exposure to their opponents, lose touch with the principles and arguments that underlie their own beliefs.”

Instead of suppressing ideas we oppose, Levy writes we should “confront them peaceably but forcefully, to turn them inside out, and to speak convincingly against them — and in favour of [our] own perspectives — on campus and beyond.”

To read Levy’s article, click here.

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