Citing free speech doesn’t eliminate harm

Rights to expression are not more important than the safety of others

SFU should protect students from potential free-speech harm. PHOTO: Andy Feliciotti / Unsplash

by Dev Petrovic, Staff Writer

The recent attack on the Washington Capitol has sparked several conversations as to where the line should be drawn between hate and free speech. However, this boundary between what constitutes a hate crime and what is considered freedom of expression seems to be vastly misunderstood. What happened in the United States was an attempted coup, but it is also an example of how passing off hate speech as free speech can escalate violently and cause serious harm. 

Multiple incidents of free speech controversy at SFU mean the school is certainly not exempt from this type of discourse. It’s time that this pattern of behaviour is recognized as harmful rather than being passed off as freedom.

In 2015, the then-active SFU Advocacy for Men & Boys (SFUAMB) club was criticized by many student groups for promoting misogynistic and anti-feminist views. Essentially, SFUAMB was a feminist-hate club that hid behind a men’s-issues-advocacy label. When a club spews this kind of rhetoric, it no longer feels welcoming for many and also gives leeway for other forms of hate speech to unravel on campus. 

Such organizations at SFU have been allowed to exist under a free speech safety net, even though their views have the potential to inflict harm on the student populace. Just because free speech is permitted on SFU campuses, that does not mean discriminatory attitudes should be openly practiced and advertised. SFU is still obligated to protect students from bigoted opinions and potential harm, and they should do so by looking more critically at these types of situations.

In 2019, noted trans and sex-worker-exclusionary speaker Meghan Murphy was permitted to host a panel at SFU before it got moved for safety reasons. Her views of gender essentialism deny that trans women are women and thus deny their experience and humanity. Murphy isn’t the only person who holds these exclusionary views, but she is able to amplify these attitudes because she is allowed a platform. This contributes to the perpetuation of the already-existing hate and violence towards trans and non-binary folks, as well as sex workers. They aren’t just words that she is promoting, but a platform for others to also engage with this exclusionary and hateful behaviour. This platform is especially problematic when it takes place in a public space, where everyone should feel safe.

This free speech discourse at SFU hasn’t tapered off either. Last February, SFU Lifeline (a pro-life club) had club status revoked for distributing resources on campus that “intended to shock, disturb, or harass students into adopting a particular belief with respect to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights (including abortion).” In response, the club complained that their right to free speech was being infringed on. While the group is entitled to have their own views, their intrusive behaviour only created further stigma and additional barriers for those already vulnerable. Preaching these attitudes is likely not going to revert people with pro-choice views into pro-lifers, but it does reach those who are already dealing with the huge physical, emotional, and psychological toll of dealing with an abortion.

When the line between hate speech and free speech is blurred, like with these incidents, there are serious and lasting repercussions on the folks being targeted and invalidated by them. The right to free speech is not more important than a person’s right to exist. Maintaining only the legal standard of what constitutes “hate speech” erases the experiences of marginalized folks, particularly BIPOC and LGBTQ2+ folks who are seriously impacted by the discrimination and violence that hateful behaviour invokes.

In Canada, an individual is free to speak out against their government and to critique policies without persecution from the government. But this fundamental right is often misconstrued and twisted to equate freedom of speech with freedom from consequences. The same applies to clubs at SFU. Students are entitled to free speech, but SFU is also responsible for maintaining a certain standard of protection. Everyone deserves to feel safe on campus and letting bigots hide behind a free speech label simply won’t do that.