EDITORIAL: On free speech

Illustration by Christy Shao, Graphics Editor

Illustration by Christy Shao, Graphics Editor

The UVic student political landscape saw the entrance of its newest contender last week, with the advent of the UVic Students for Free Speech and Accountability (USFSA). Borne of the desire to hold the powers that be (ie. the UVSS) accountable — as well as the release of a problematic report by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms that gave UVic and the UVSS failing grades in their support of free speech — the page quickly became a hotbed of discussion. Some of it was fair and valid. And some of it was terrible.

The bulk of discussion so far has centred around free speech, or rather, how the UVSS “limits” it. In one case, this supposedly manifested when the Native Students Union (NSU) opposed a student conference on the grounds that planners did not adequately consult indigenous groups on campus. USFSA went so far as to say the NSU had veto power; this is disingenuous to the extreme, and ignores the fact that a marginalized group voiced entirely reasonable concerns with how the UVSS was behaving — exactly what the USFSA believes to be their own mission.

In another instance, the spirited discussion revolved around the idea of safe spaces, with some wondering whether such spaces do more to segregate folks rather than include them. With the UVic Pride Collective referendum fast approaching, some used it as an opportunity to call the group’s activities into question, with one person going so far as to claim a funding increase for minorities was discrimination. (It’s not.)

And in yet another instance, some openly questioned whether colonialism was a tangible phenomenon today. The list goes on, but most of the naysaying comes from — surprise, surprise — privileged individuals, repeating the same tired song and dance you hear every other time marginalized groups speak up about the injustices they face every. Damn. Day. And those same privileged folks will probably be mad that we said that. Tough.

Free speech can be summed up in a neat little analogy: you also have the freedom to wildly wave your arms about. However, the man sitting next to you on the bus has the right to safety (in this case, the right to not be punched in the face). Ergo, your right to wave your arms around is only valid if you’re not infringing upon other people’s right to safety.

Free speech is exactly the same. Yes, you have the right to voice your opinions. But this doesn’t mean you have the right to be a shitheel about it. The people around you would appreciate that you don’t, as they have the right to be safe from discrimination and violence.

In fact, the CBC recently announced they would be suspending comment sections on articles pertaining to indigenous affairs — citing a “disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate [their] guidelines” — and even the Martlet has taken steps in recent weeks to clean up its comments, with new policies put in place to limit inflammatory or harmful discussion. This is not censorship. This is not limiting your free speech. Rather, it’s doing our part to ensure that discussions remain safe and positive for everyone.

Because in the end, if you’re silencing those who need to be heard, then what kind of advocate for free speech are you?

13 Comments

Avatar Jake

I agree with limiting inflammatory or harmful discussion, but I’d also like to note that doing so is the very definition of censorship and limiting free speech. No way around it.

Avatar Remy

I agree 100% that removing of comments sections or specific comments is not a reduction in free speech. Free speech grants a citizen the ability to say something publicly. It does not guaranteed access to message boards owned by independent organizations.

However this statement, “the Martlet has taken steps in recent weeks to clean up its comments, with new policies put in place to limit inflammatory or harmful discussion. This is not censorship.” is factually false. A censor is defined in the dictionary as “a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.” That is an exact description of what the Martlet and other papers have done. I am not saying it is wrong or right — sometimes censorship is needed — but when you remove text deemed by your staff to be against a certain set of rules or policies, that is censorship. When breasts are blacked out or a swear word bleeped out on TV, it is because they have been deemed offensive and censored. The same goes for offensive speech in comments sections. There is no difference, that is the definition of censorship. Censorship can be used for good and for bad, but we should not lie about what it is.

Avatar UVic Students for Free Speech

Interesting. Although we agree that freedom of speech and expression is not a blank cheque for hatred, the unspecified author of this editorial makes the error of assuming that enabling personal attacks is one of, and seemingly our only, goals. This is, of course, untrue. As we have stated time and again, we firmly condemn any kind of hate speech, be it racism, sexism, homophobia, et cetera. Our aim is to ensure that social and political views can be expressed freely on campus and are subject to fair and open critique. Another issue with this editorial is that it implies that comments made by individuals on our page represent the views of our entire organization. This is entirely unfair. The writer has also cherry-picked the most offensive comments they were able to find, without any mention of the “fair and valid” comments that they grudgingly admitted exist. Despite the number of fallacies presented by this article, we appreciate hearing what you have to say.

P.S. What is a “shitheel”? We’ll assume for now that it is a term of endearment!

Avatar Iron

Here’s a question, what do you think would have happened to your comment if it was you calling the Martlet staff shitheels? I think I know the answer. Hopefully they will understand that their BLATANTLY hypocritical censorship activities do nothing but push the Martlet into complete and total irrelevance. I swear, every time I pass a Martlet pick-up station I see a big pile of them untouched, sitting there even weeks after being published. You know why? Because the Martlet doesn’t believe in free speech and doesn’t reflect the views or interests of the general student body.

Avatar Connie Graham

Free speech means you’re entitled to express your opinion… stating opinion as fact is something else… you can’t speak for the intentions of the Martlet (i.e. “the Martlet doesn’t believe in free speech”) because you are not inside their heads… you don’t know what they believe, you are just of the opinion that they don’t believe in free speech… the same goes for the UVSS… I can ask if anyone from your group ever bothered to sit down with folks from UVSS and ask them what was going on with your concerns, but I can’t state that you didn’t or wouldn’t because I don’t really know. Perhaps a little critical thinking about your own practices would be worthwhile… but of course that is just my opinion. Do with it what you will.

Avatar Iron

Sure, perhaps you are right, so I will modify my claim: they have taken a clear position against free speech in the above staff editorial, whatever their private views happen to be. I don’t need to meet them personally, just look at the article up top in which they’re stating in plain English that they think they should have the power to decide /for/ us, without us ever knowing the content of a comment, whether the comment should be “allowed”. They think they should be trusted to decide for us what constitutes “harm” or “inflammatory” instead of letting readers decide for themselves. They think that, instead of letting students form their own individual judgements as to the content of comments, they should judge /for/ students. They say they will censor speech that harms or is inflammatory, and they delegate power to themselves to define what those terms mean (and those terms don’t resemble Canadian free speech law at all, on a side note) and apply these these rules that they made up, as they see fit, without anyone ever knowing how the rules are being applied because nobody can read what’s been censored except the censors themselves. That, in my opinion, is a very clear position against free speech. In a nutshell: the right to express oneself is inseparable from the right to hear what others are expressing. You cannot have one without the other. Telling people “you have free speech but I get to prevent everyone from hearing you whenever I decide, based on rules I made up,” is inherently contradictory and in no way resembles a pro free speech position. That’s my critical thinking for you.

Avatar The Martlet

Hi Iron,

We appreciate your concerns. Our decision to moderate all comments for approval—rather than no moderation at all as it was before—came in response to some recent incidents that demanded immediate attention (bullying, intimidation, general unpleasantness). With this, we also implemented a two-week window on each comment section, after which the comments would close. (We’ve since expanded this to 30 days as some stories do still warrant discussion after that timeframe.)

We are currently in the process of drafting a proper comment moderation policy of which we will be sure to inform our readers upon completion. That way both readers and staff will know exactly what is acceptable on our page—and what is not. For now, we’ll direct you towards our Code of Conduct and Harassment Policy as a general guideline of what that policy may look like.

Obviously the Martlet respects and appreciates everyone’s right to express themselves, and we strive to foster an environment where that’s possible. However, we must also consider the repercussions of that right, repercussions that made themselves evident elsewhere on this very website.

If you have any further questions, concerns, or even suggestions as to what this moderation policy should look like, feel free to email our editor-in-chief, Myles Sauer, at edit@martlet.ca.

Avatar Iron

I have a simple suggestion: If you believe a comment violates the rules, you should hide it with a little clickable warning that says “this comment is in violation of commenting policy, click to view.” Alternatively, you could have a system by which a comment becomes hidden but still clickable to view if it receives more than X-number of downvotes. I don’t know if these systems are supported by disqus but I’ve seen both on other websites many times and they would fulfill all your objectives quite well. It would prevent people from having to see harmful or hateful language (as you define it) as they browse comments, but they may choose to see by clicking specifically. Best of both worlds. It also allows readers to see how you are applying the comment policy and give feedback to you as to whether you are doing so fairly and consistently. This last point is the most important!

So long as the policy allows you to censor comments without oversight from the student body, the policy does not respect people’s right to express themselves in my opinion. Supposing you do draft an elegant and clear and comprehensive policy: How are readers supposed to know YOU are following it? How can we be certain you aren’t censoring comments in a biased way, or simply censoring things that conform to the policy but with which you disagree? Any version of “you can trust us” is not sufficient as I see it. Either censor nothing, or do so in a way that allows readers to click and un-hide censored comments. I’m posting this suggestion here rather than privately because I prefer it to be a public suggestion for others to see as well. Thank you for the reply by the way.

Avatar kelseyh

That’s actually a really great idea. I wonder if Disqus allows for it.

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