On March 13, a Member of Parliament visited the University of Waterloo to make an address to a group of students. In the middle of his speech, this elected representative was interrupted by a handful of protesters, one of whom was not even a student at the university. But campus police did not intervene during this disruption, so the speech was cancelled and the audience dispersed. The university is now investigating this incident, and inquiries are being made into reports that the police failed to intervene on behalf of the speaker because the protestors, so the officers allegedly said, “had the right to free speech as much as” the invited parliamentarian himself.
That any speaker should be so silenced at a university campus is an outrage. The university exists so that ideas might be freely expressed and fairly debated without any kind of impediment. The organized interruption of a lecture is, therefore, no mere prank. It is an act of sabotage which destroys the very atmosphere required for the special flourishing which the institution enables.
Thus, the pusillanimous police should be summarily dismissed, because they evidently misunderstand, not only their own function, but the very purpose and mission of the university they purport to protect. A campus officer deferring to the rights of an interrupting protester is like a riot officer recognizing an anarchist’s freedom to throw bricks – or to practice his hammer swing unfettered by an inconveniently positioned storefront window.
It is easy to affirm the “freedom of speech” in principle, but it is a right that matters only when it is menaced; the speech that is opposed is the speech that needs protection. The police, however, failed to defend the MP’s freedom of speech; they failed to defend the audience’s freedom of assembly; and, most scandalously, they failed to defend the very freedom for which the university was established: academic freedom itself.
The text of this politician’s interrupted address should be passed around on campus; it should be plastered on the walls of buildings and bulletin boards; it should be read aloud in common rooms, lecture halls, and quadrangles alike. But, sadly, we doubt that such appropriate acts will be taken by the student body; nor will the university’s faculty rise up in outrage as they ought. For the MP who was interrupted was the courageous pro-life crusader, Stephen Woodworth; and the group which invited him was the Waterloo Students for Life. Thus, because the positions of this politician are considered unpopular, a dangerous double standard has quietly emerged. Yet, what is the point of having academic freedom if the only opinions which are defended are the ones which are fashionable?
The journey to the bottom of freedom’s slope begins with a single slip. When we imagine totalitarian suppression, sinister images of jackboots and prison camps automatically come to mind; what one fails to think of are the many small and cowardly compromises that make such outright oppression possible.
On March 13, the enemies of the freedoms of speech, assembly, and thought made their move; Waterloo University – an institution which exists precisely so that these freedoms might be exercised – must now make a response.