Free speech discussed during social justice week at Ryerson

(By: Emma Sandri)

Free speech is silencing the voices of marginalized groups in society, a two-spirited Indigenous artist said at Ryerson Oct. 25.

“Academic institutions have failed us,” said Raven Davis. “They’ve fed us only certain narratives. So it’s up to us to take on a large part of our education.”

free speech
The moderator of the discussion, Tariq Amin-Khan, with panelists (left to right) James Turk, Naseem Mithoowani and Raven Davis Oct. 25. (Photo credit: Emma Sandri/RUtv News)

Davis, whose work spans several art forms, was part of a social justice week panel discussion exploring the place of free speech in a modern and inclusive Canadian society.

Media and academic institutions were used during the discussion to illustrate how “unfavourable” opinions by marginalized groups can be suppressed by larger voices.

“We need to stop being shocked that this is happening,” Davis said. “Believe it because they’re going to [do] it again.”

The idea that free speech lacks equality became a national topic of debate this summer when a Dalhousie University student found herself facing disciplinary action for a Facebook post.

Masuma Khan, a vice-president in the Dalhousie Student Union, used the hashtag “#WhiteFragilityCanKissMyAss” when speaking about the union’s decision to forgo Canada Day celebrations.

According to panelist and Ryerson visiting professor James Turk, Dalhousie’s decision to file a formal complaint ignored one crucial section of its Student Code of Conduct: free speech.

“Nothing in this Code shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, or lawful picketing, or to inhibit freedom of speech,” Turk quoted from the document.

The university has since announced that it would be dropping its complaint.

“The university is … perhaps the primary place in a democratic society, where people can debate difficult issues, can examine, analyze, criticize from all perspectives,” Turk told CBC Radio’s The Current before the panel.

Wayne Gray, an attendee at the panel and Ryerson masters student, said when an institution like a university ignores the lived experiences of marginalized groups in favour of more popular opinions, it can cause feelings of divide.

“To approach any kind of dialogue I think it’s really important that you’re not looking at things through just your lens,” said Gray. “At least make adjustments with respect to the other various lenses that come into play.”

While the panel gave no definitive link between free speech and hate crimes, Statistics Canada did report a five per cent increase in criminal cases motivated by hate between 2014 and 2015.

But perhaps free speech can be used to solve this problem.

“It’s important to let someone know that you’re hurting me, my culture,” attendee Sunshine Lezard said. “Discrimination is not acceptable and a person may not understand they are being discriminatory.”

Despite the panel raising many important perspectives about free speech, a second-year chemistry student who attended the panel, Pia Keenan, said ‘mom’s advice’ still holds true.

“Growing up, my mom always told me, ‘If you have nothing nice to say then don’t say it at all,’” Keenan said. “People should be able to dress however they wish, speak however they wish, but if they want to be mean, I have absolutely no tolerance.”

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