As part of his bid to win the Conservative leadership, Andrew Scheer is pretending that free speech is under threat on Canadian campuses. What he is really talking about however, is protecting people from the consequences of unpopular speech including protecting hate speech from negative reactions.

What really seems to trouble conservatives like Scheer is that bigoted positions which have long been the norm in most of the Western world are not as welcome as they once were.

The right to free speech, thought and expression are meant to protect individuals from official government sanction. The government cannot, for example, punish an individual for being “pro-life”. The government cannot punish journalists for paining them (deliberately or not) in a bad light. Free speech protection does not mean that anyone has to listen to your opinion or read the article you wrote.

Free speech does not guarantee your right to speak your mind at work. It does not guarantee that you can shout your views in a crowded restaurant or private club. It doesn’t give you the right to wander into a store and start harassing customers because they are buying products you don’t like. All institutions, outside of government, are free to set their own rules and standards governing free speech, individuals are free to ignore what you have to say and to use their own right to free speech to say they don’t agree.

According to the National Post, Scheer feels that:

”A “troubling trend” has surfaced where small groups on campus can shut down events, prevent guest speakers from giving lecture and ban activities or clubs they disagree with, Scheer said in an interview Wednesday. “Campuses are no longer the bastions of free speech that they once were.” 

Recent examples include a pro-life group having its event canceled at Wilfrid Laurier University; a student newspaper at McGill refusing to print pro-Israel articles; and protest surrounding University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson for his views on gender pronouns.”

While I’m not sure what event at Laurier which Sheer is referring to, it is the right of any publication (student run or otherwise) to publish whatever they choose. The right to free speech does not guarantee a right to publication. It also does not guarantee the popularity of your speech. Jordan Peterson’s refusal to refer to people using their preferred pronoun has offended a great many people and some of those people have used their own right to free speech to protest.

It is hardly a new thing that some groups have a hard time on campus. It used to be LGBT groups and (real or imagined) communist organizations. Those who wield very unpopular or controversial opinions have always faced enhanced levels of scrutiny and have had extra obstacles placed in their path. However, in 2017 very few groups are actually banned from campus anywhere. What has changed is which groups and opinions are unpopular and this has become a serious issue on the far right of the political spectrum in Canada and the United States.

Every year, the Campus Freedom Index from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) releases a report in which they lambaste Canadian universities for their lack of freedom. These reports are regularly covered by media outlets but most of them don’t mention John Carpay. Carpay, a former Reform Party and Wildrose Candidate and provincial director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is also the founder of the JCCF.

Again it is not free speech in general that conservatives are concerned about. It is, in fact, just the opposite. Scheer and like-minded conservatives want to stifle dissent and protest against unpopular points of view – primarily as it concerns things like LGBT rights, sexism, racism and Islamophobia. Specifically Sheer would like to strip government funding from universities which do not provide a forum for these views, even when it is against the wishes of the student body. It is an attempt to extend to right to free speech into a right to be heard and published. It is an attempt to shield people who have unpopular views from the negative reactions of others to those views.

It is not surprising, I suppose, that intolerant and bigoted people feel that their opinions should be more protected than the opinions of others. However, it is not something that any rational person should vote for in the 21st century.