If undergraduate students remember anything of Socrates after leaving university, it is that the Greek philosopher was forced by the Athenians to drink hemlock in 399 B.C. The reason, as perhaps fewer will recall, is that Socrates was accused of not worshipping the gods of the city and of corrupting the youth. Thus, for politically correct moderns, who love nothing so much as a principled refusenik who stands up to dead white males, Socrates is praised as a man of principle– someone who refused to live in exile and chose instead to die for the sake of his convictions.
This is the standard narrative and it is one to which university students, many professors, administrators and boards of governors would, in the abstract, endorse as central to the mission of a university. Free inquiry and even potentially subversive opinions cannot be allowed to be squelched.
So, for example, on its website, our own University of Calgary pledges to be guided by principles that include: “To promote free inquiry and debate” and to “respect, appreciate, and encourage diversity.”
Thus, at least in the abstract, forcing people to keep silent because of their views is to be criticized and opposed as illiberal. Using force to dampen the opinion of others is an offence to the spirit of free inquiry and free expression, which are in reality at the heart of a liberal education.
Defenders of free inquiry would be horrified at not only the punishment meted out to Socrates, but at the less dramatic methods used by those in power to silence their critics: coercion, threats, and censorship.
Alas, universities easily defend free inquiry in the abstract but are less robust when served up with opinions that stubbornly refuse to bow to the preferred dictates of ever anxious administrators. We refer specifically to the Uof C’s attempt to silence its student pro-life club, members of whom were served trespassing notices earlier this month. The charges stem from a graphic –indeed gross–exhibit about abortion the students set up in November. The students will appear in provincial court today to answer the charges.
Whatever one thinks of abortion, the University’s crackdown on student pro-lifers has never been about abortion. It is not even about ugly pictures. The real issue here concerns the free expression and inquiry at the heart of university life.
True, the expression in this case was particularly graphic and unsettling. However, had students displayed photos of victims of the wars in Sudan, Afghanistan, or Iraq, or of military torture at Abu Ghraib, they would never be the subject of trespassing charges. Similarly, PETA activists or environmentalist students would never have faced charges for graphically displaying the suffering of animals. It seems more likely that they would instead be served up as examples of the tolerance befitting a university community.
To its credit, theUofC displayed tolerance toward the same pro-life exhibit in the past. In previous years, it erected signs informing passersby that while the university did not endorse the display, it was protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This past fall, however, the University reversed its stance, demanding the exhibit be turned inward and making good on promises to bring charges if this demand was not met, this vis-a-vis students who contributed to the university’s core mission– free inquiry, debate, and diversity of opinion.
The university’s behaviour in this matter has been excessive. At a meeting last October between the university and the pro-life students who have been consistently peaceful, the university brought along seven police officers. Why? Similarly, the university asked Calgary’s finest to be on campus while students erected their pro-life display last November. That might have been justified if others had threatened to disrupt the display –though surely university security could have taken care of such duties; it was unjustified if ordered in an attempt to intimidate students.
Then, Calgary police served the summons on each student individually with regards to the trespassing charges. How would you like to be in the position of a teenager or early 20-something– served notice of her charges, at home, by a member of the police? For this she paid many thousands of dollars in tuition to the University? Diversion of scarce police resources and wasting valuable court time are bad enough. Intimidation by the university administration is far worse.
Now, instead of preparing for exams, and looking forward to graduation, our students are up against the full weight of the university, the police, and the justice system. Instead of defending the historic mission of this institution, the university is undermining it.
The would-be modern guardians of our youth at theUof C no longer force principled dissidents to drink hemlock. Now they just use the weight of their tax-funded offices to direct the police to harass and intimidate the students– their own students–upon threat of expulsion and legal penalties. For shame.
Barry Cooper And Mark Milke Teach Political Science At The University Of Calgary. Marco Navarro-Genie Teaches Political Science And History At St. Mary’s University College And At The University Of Calgary.