Jackson Doughart
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The state of campus censorship

Prince Arthur Herald, 23 September 2013

In anticipation of the Campus Freedom Index report, which the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms will release tomorrow, I’ll offer a few anecdotes about the straits of censorship on campus. The methodology of the Justice Center will undoubtedly be more quantitative and rigorous, to be sure, but I think that these cases may give some insight into the extent of the problem in many centers of higher learning, including places where I have studied such as the University of Prince Edward Island and Queen’s University:

In 2006, UPEI’s campus newspaper The Cadre republished the infamous Muhammed Cartoons from a Danish newspaper, whose editorial decision to run the drawings had been met with a violent response from Muslims claiming to be enraged by representations of the prophet. Reprinting the cartoons was rare among Canadian publications; most elected not to do so under the cowardly pretense of wanting to avoid causing offense. (Real reason?: fear of violent reprisal). Though a local Islamic organization defended the right of The Cadre‘s staff to write what they wished, the university administration led by one H. Wade MacLauchlan, the institution’s president at the time, directed his underlings to confiscate all copies of the paper that had already been circulated around campus. This action robbed students, staff, and faculty alike from actually seeing the subject of what was then an international media controversy. When accused of censorship, MacLauclan announced, “We still run the university!” and blamed the ordeal on “neo-cons”.

In 2012, UPEI’s Political Studies Society attempted to organize an on-campus debate concerning the province’s contentious abortion policy. This was specifically brought about by the activism of an organization called the P.E.I. Reproductive Rights Organization, whose executive included several students and was supported by several professors. P.R.R.O. held events on campus to promote abortion access for women in the province, yet refused to participate in any public event that gave a voice to “anti-choicers”, a faction whose arguments P.R.R.O. felt they were above answering. Rather, the organization would only appear in a public forum on the condition that other speakers did not disagree that there was no argument to be had. When the Political Studies Society sought participation from professors who were not directly involved in P.R.R.O., but who held beliefs sympathetic to its cause, it was met by a cold shoulder, defended invariably by the excuse that even holding a debate — on the grounds of a university, no less — would undermine the efforts of the “choice” lobby.

Queen’s University’s gender studies department contributes and participates annually to ReelOut, a film festival showcasing gay-themed productions. One entry to the 2013 festival was the documentary Invisible Men, which chronicled the plight of gay men from the West Bank who fled their families (all of the men featured in the film had been threatened with death) and took refuge illegally in Israel, which is notoriously anomalous among Middle Eastern countries for its acceptance of homosexual citizens. A Leftist group argued that the film should be removed from the festival due to its commission of “homonationalism”, a term (used more or less synonymously with “pinkwashing”) that, in principle, implies the disingenuous co-opting of bourgeois gay people for the service of the conservative political causes. In practice, it is a rhetorical counterweight to the clear distinction between the treatment of homosexuals in Israel, which is comparable with advanced Western countries, and their treatment in the West Bank and Gaza, where being gay is an effective warrant for “honour” killings. At any rate, the body adjudicating the grievance decided that the film could be shown, but that it should be preceded by an oral presentation from those who felt that it should have been prohibited — a curious privilege that was not extended to those who took the opposite view.

It is not simply a matter of official censorship, such as the Danish Cartoon case at UPEI, which is problematic. There also exists a culture of censorship which aims at engendering self-censorship — the ultimate victory for those who believe that their point of view is outside the purview of criticism. And though there are doubtless counterexamples to be found, it is more than fair to say that the blame for this phenomenon does not fall equally upon all social and political worldviews; it is the descendants of the 1960s social revolution, who continue to see the university as a frontline in the fight for social justice, who hold the most responsibility. Ultimately, this culture is animated by a fundamental intolerance of those who disagree with the dominant opinions on campus, and is manifested by both a profound moral and cultural relativism and a petulant absolutism, holding above all that academic freedom is only important when it serves the right cause.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com