Arün Smith favours diversity, just not diversity of opinion. So in early February he removed the free-speech wall at Carleton University – stole the paper and destroyed the frame – then, on Facebook, rationalized his violent direct action. In his incoherent philosophy, “liberty requires liberation, and this liberation is prevented by providing space for either more platitudes, or for the expression of hate.” He vowed to repeat his crime should the free-speech wall be restored.
Carleton’s stifling cultural climate, known to readers familiar with the Lifeline saga, had recently been documented by an atrocious rating in the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom’s 2012 Campus Freedom Index, which evaluates policies and practices of public university administrations and student unions.
Enter libertarian group Students for Liberty, which erected a free-speech wall offering students the same rights they would enjoy as Canadians outside academia. With JCCF backing, SFL stuck paper on large wooden planks and handed out coloured markers. “What we wanted to promote was competition of ideas, rather than ‘if I disagree with you I’ve got to censor you’,” said campus coordinator Ian CoKehyeng.
Smith was having none of it. He’s a seventh-year human rights and political science major, sexuality minor student, and the campaign coordinator for Challenge Homophobia and Transphobia. He considered the free-speech wall “triggering” for not only what it said, but when – during Pride Week – and whatever it had the potential to say. (Though “triggering” is legitimately associated with acute and post-traumatic stress disorders, it’s often taken up indiscriminately in feminist and LGBTQ circles.)
Smith told Ezra Levant, “unregulated free speech is something that leads to hate speech every single time.” He thinks every voice should be heard, except for bigots’ – and he’s set himself up to arbitrate which opinions are valid.
Smith’s a complicated fellow who seems to have had help getting that way. In 2012 he survived online harassment targeting him for reasons of sexual inclination and race, and threatening him with rape. He became suicidal, and hate-crime proceedings ensued. Additionally, the same student councilor who got Lifeline’s club status restored made some inflammatory, though hardly hateful, remarks about Pride Toronto, which Smith took personally.
Student Affairs, which prioritizes equity, not equality, has met with Smith but not disclosed any disciplinary action against him – and CoKehyeng has yet to be compensated. Had another student claimed marginalization and stolen a Pride Week display, wouldn’t the penalty have been swift, harsh, and visible?
Meanwhile, because Smith sees himself as a victim, the Institute for Liberal Studies’ Janet Neilson recommended engaging with his supporters rather than pushing for punishment. To its credit, ILS directed funds to a second free-speech wall, which stood unmolested for an entire week.
What about the pro-life and pro-family response?
At Carleton, both pro-life and pro-choice students helped to erect the free-speech wall.
Instead of treating Smith as typical of a homogenous other side, as some ill-informed commentary did, we can consistently recognize partial allies and work with them on shared goals. Many in the LGBTQ communities, not least in Xtra!, have condemned Smith’s hypocrisy, reasserting that speech deemed offensive is precisely what secular society should protect.
Similarly, CoKehyeng supports gay rights and takes no public position on abortion – but he’s also smart, articulate, and principled enough to have intervened provocatively to open up his campus mindset. Furthermore, CoKehyeng, who is Chinese-Canadian, astutely recognizes the dangers of the student union replacement for its club ban – a new censorship board. He told Brian Lilley, “the countries that have ever played with censorship … have all had terrible human rights records, and if Arün Smith has been in Carleton for seven years studying human rights, he should be able to make that correlation.”
And JCCF’s Great Canadian Free-Speech Wall fundraising campaign aims to raise $10,000 by May 1 to spread awareness and efforts across the country, with walls on campuses from Vancouver to St. John’s later brought together in Ottawa. For a $25 donation, your name will be included on the free-speech wall; for $100, you can write a message on it; and for $500 a piece of the wall will be shipped to you as a keepsake.
Second, if we participate in a free-speech wall, we need to step up our game. At Carleton, the message “traditional marriage is awesome” made little headway. Instead, how about “does it really matter if we are one sex or another? Visit theologyofthebody.net?” “Abortion is murder” wasn’t nearly our best line; how about “the right to choose involves the right to know. Get your online Signal Hill pregnancy resource guide?”
Third, we balance justice and mercy in proposing a third vision alongside the respective progressive and libertarian positions. Yes, bullies see themselves as victims, and they may well be – which is why, even where we can’t control the outcome, we advocate breaking the cycle and penalizing bullying. JCCF president John Carpay told me, “Arün Smith should be treated like any other common thief who steals stuff. Police lay charges and prosecutors prosecute.” Personal contingencies can and should be considered in deferrals or sentencing, but they don’t excuse someone – especially someone who publicizes his crime – from being charged.
Fifth, we shine light on what’s true, good, and beautiful in our post-Christian society. A breath of fresh air has come to major European cities through the Courtyard of the Gentiles – a Catholic-sponsored, Protestant-supported opportunity for believers and non-believers to discourse about their most important human questions. The Pontifical Council for Culture is likewise sponsoring a display by artists (none of them Catholic) treating the first 11 chapters of Genesis. For some atheists and agnostics, such occasions will generate pre-evangelization; for others, they at least provide a stepping stone to the culture of life. Whereas free speech is a laudable secular goal, the Church facilitates rare moments for edification. Pro-life and pro-family activists, particularly students, would do well to spread such a generous gift.
Theresa Yoshioka was a faith and pro-life leader respectively while earning two degrees. Prior to his later conversion, while obtaining the first of his four degrees, her husband Alan wrote Canada’s first campus column on gay and lesbian issues. Together they now study at St Augustine’s Seminary. As proprietors of an editing business, they are kind to perpetual students and other lifelong learners.