Thursday, June 5, 2008


Well, that got your attention, didn't it? And now permit me to burst your bubble: this column isn't about abortion. It's about the right to discuss it, and for those purposes my views on the subject are irrelevant.

I don't get nearly as much exercise I should, but I do make an effort to get my heart-rate up several times a week, and my principal method for doing so is to open my alma mater's undergraduate paper, The Gazette, to see who is trying to ban something this week. In any given issue, one discovers campus organizations trying to ban everything from armed forces recruiters to unpopular professors to Coca-Cola machines. And here is where the exercise effect kicks in: immediately the heart-rate begins to climb, the blood rises, the grip and forearms tighten, and I rattle up the steps two at a time to pound out an angry letter in my office. I hope to add some years to my life thereby.

Earlier this week, with the bulk of the student body in absentia, the student government at York University voted to ban all student organizations that oppose abortion. Other student clubs were assured that they would be free to discuss abortion, provided (quoting one of those who supported the ban) that they do so "within a pro-choice realm", which is to say that they are not free to discuss abortion. "Is this an issue of free speech?" the same person asked, "No, this is an issue of women's rights."

Well, with friends like these, advocates of women's rights need no enemies; if such people ran things, half the work of those who would turn back the clock on female emancipation would be accomplished already. Freedom of speech is a women's rights issue. One need hardly invoke the views of such titans in the struggle for women's liberation as Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg to appreciate at once that it is the most important of all women's rights issues, the one that has made possible all of the progress that so many women have struggled for and have achieved over time.

One's mind can only boggle at the megalomania of certain student representatives, who, having been elected by the most meager fraction of the student body, believe that it is within their mandate to decide what fellow students aren't allowed to say or hear on campus. Our right to freedom of expression and opinion is guaranteed by Article Nineteen of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada is a signatory, and by Section Two of our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Against these epochal achievements in the progress of human rights, the piffling objections of the winners of a virtually subliminal popularity contest should rightly amount to nothing. Yet on campus — on campus of all places! — we are up to our necks in people who have made up their own minds but don't think that you and I should be allowed to.

In the Areopagitica, Milton wrote that "though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth" truth and falsehood must ever be permitted to "grapple", for who, he asked, "ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?" So how extraordinary it is to find people who claim to know that they are right, but who are nonetheless afraid to expose themselves to contrary opinions. Perhaps they lack confidence in their own arguments? Certainly they hold the intellect of the women for whom they claim to speak in total contempt - why else would they conclude that other women cannot be permitted to see or hear or read a diversity of opinions? Why else conclude that they need to be protected from anything that might offend them?

And that is what is really at stake here, for the right to freedom expression contains an immutable corollary: the right of others to listen. It is above all this right that those who tabled the ban would deny - at least within the compass of their self-professed authority to do so. Tremble, readers, to think of such people in positions of real authority, deciding for you what opinions you're not allowed to say or read or hear.

I think that the chances of such a ban occurring at my alma mater are very small. But if a similar decision is made by any powers-that-be that reside therein, I hereby pledge to do the following: I will put on a pro-choice t-shirt, pick a spot on campus, and spend the afternoon politely distributing anti-abortion literature to anyone who bloody well wants to read it.


Graham Broad said...

The image on this, what should be, by all rights, the *least* controversial blog post I have written, is a relief from the Angor Wat temple in Cambodia. It depicts an abortion being performed, ca. 1150 CE. No doubt some people would like the image removed from the temple.

Andrew Denstedt said...

A similar thing happened last year at Carleton. The debate was so heated that the Carleton newspaper (The Charlatan) introduced new students to the university this year with a Carleton A to Z feature which began like this:

"A- Abortion - a major source of debate on campus. Know your stance now, or stay away."

The CUSA took a slightly different approach to limiting the anti-abortion voice than the folks at York have. Instead of banning the clubs outright, they simply passed a motion which prevented them from using university resources, which among other things, denies them access to any club space on campus. As far as I can tell, this action spawned the creation of an anti-abortion club, which was overwhelmingly approved by the very same CUSA a mere 36 days after the resource ban passed.

It's funny that your blog reminded me of this story. Just yesterday I was reading about how the Toronto Board of Education did almost the exact same thing in the 1960s. They banned anyone “associated with the communist movement” from using school board owned property. Board members even stated explicitly that they were not limiting free speech, pointing out that the communists could speak their conscience wherever they pleased, so long as it wasn't on the Board's property.

That type of reasoning is tenuous at best, but regulating space is a really easy way to limit a voice. As such, I'm surprised that the York student's council went for an outright ban. Trying to make a bolder statement I guess. Either way, it sounds like some elected officials need to spend some time brushing up on their Voltaire readings.

Alison Hunter said...

Awesome blog, comme habitude. It It seems that I can discuss more issues with my grade 9 students than can be discussed on some university campuses. Odd.