The Rot in America’s Universities: Islands of Repression in a Sea of Freedom

TORONTO – How fares freedom of speech at Canadian universities?

It looked pretty grim back in September 2002, when a mini-intifada prevented Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel, from speaking at Concordia.

Then last month, Ali Hassan and his Middle East Students Association did briefly succeed in cancelling a talk on “Barriers to Peace” in the Middle East at York University in Toronto. But President Lorna Marsden did the right thing and resolved that a minority view — mine — had the right to be heard and would be heard.

The result was not your usual academic talk. I spoke in a curtained-off section of the university’s main basketball court. The venue had been locked-down for 24 hours before the event. Admission was severely limited. Only students could attend and they had to pick up tickets the day before. At the gymnasium they showed identification, then went through a gauntlet of metal-detectors and friskings. A hundred police officers, some 10 of them on horseback, hovered ubiquitously, tensed for trouble. Substantial parts of the campus were blocked off.

As for me, several bodyguards took me through a back entrance to the gym and sequestered me in a holding room until I entered the gym. But surely the most memorable aspect of this talk was the briefing by James Hogan, a detective in the Hate Crime Unit of the Toronto Police Service, to make sure I was aware that Canada’s Criminal Code makes a variety of public statements actionable, including advocating genocide (up to five years in prison) and promoting hatred of a specific group (up to two years).

Though the event began very much behind schedule — all that frisking takes time — and the acoustics on the basketball court ranged between awful and atrocious, the lecture itself and the subsequent question and answer period went off without a hitch.

My visit to York confirms, as if one needed more proof, that the North American university has become — in the words of Abigail Thernstrom — “an island of repression in a sea of freedom.” This problem was inadvertently but succinctly captured by a newspaper headline a few days back: “York University to allow talk by pro-Israel academic.” Imagine that!

No other institution — the media, the churches, the Parliament, the corporation — would treat a dissenting view in like fashion. And does it really need to be pointed out that the university is supposed to be a place for inquiry and debate?

The attempt to close down my talk also confirmed the specific sources of hostility to free speech. In theory, these could come from the extreme right, radical Christians, and pro-Israel activists; in fact, they invariably and uniquely come from the extreme left, Islamists, and anti-Israeli activists.

This motley threesome contains two distinct wings, the street toughs and the academics. The rowdies make no pretense of accepting free speech, as they showed at York in their posters that called on crowds to “stop” me from speaking on campus — nothing subtle here. They are barbarians plain and simple who must be countered through rigorous adherence to principle and strict application of the law.

Academics work more invidiously, maintaining a veneer of civility while restricting free speech in such quiet ways as punishing dissenters with poor grades, rejecting them for faculty positions, and not inviting them to campus appearances. Even they, however, sometimes reveal their true face of intolerance of hatred.

My visit to York brought out the last two of these patterns. The university’s Centre for International and Security Studies made the mistake of inviting me to meet with students before the talk; when its head, David Dewitt, learned more about me and my activities, he withdrew his invitation saying that these caused him and his colleagues “unease.” (I hadn’t known security types to be made of sugar before this.) The York University Faculty Association, a powerful and authoritative voice, issued a formal statement out of the blue accusing me of being “committed to a racist agenda and a methodology of intimidation and harassment.”

The fact that students had to go through metal detectors to hear me speak on Tuesday points to the rot in our institutions of higher learning, a rot that will fester so long as society at large ignores what is taking place on campus. Improvement requires university stakeholders — alumni, trustees, parents, legislators, and others — to note the intolerance on campus, then make the necessary efforts to combat it.