Speech and Protection at Carleton University

Carleton student Arun Smith’s “act of resistance” won him national media attention the days following Jan. 22.

Carleton Students for Liberty's Ian CoKehyeng stands next to his free speech display

By: Garrett Barry and Rachel Collier

Carleton Students for Liberty's Ian CoKehyeng stands next to his free speech display

Carleton Students for Liberty’s Ian CoKehyeng stands next to his free speech display. Photo by Shamit Tushakiran

Carleton student Arun Smith’s “act of resistance”  won him national media attention the days following Jan. 22.

That week, Carleton Students for Liberty put up a “free speech wall” and encouraged students to write whatever they pleased on the board.

In a public Facebook note, entitled, “President Runte, I tore down that wall,” Smith explained he took down the display in an act of “forceful resistance,” on the night of the 21st.

According to Smith, the existence of the display was undermining attempts to make students feel safe on campus.

Ian CoKehyeng, president of the student group, says the wall was meant to raise awareness for free speech rights among Carleton students. Last year, he points out, Carleton University received a failing grade from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in their Campus Freedom Index.

“We wanted to get people discussing facts rather than censoring [debate].”

But Smith disagreed.

“There can be no safe(r) spaces where there is potential for triggering, the invalidation or questioning of the identities of others, and/or the expression of hatred,” Smith wrote in his Facebook note.

The Advocates for Youth group defines safe spaces as a “a place where any young person can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwanted, or unsafe.” It puts an emphasis on protecting gender identity, gender expression, race and ethnicity.

Critics of Smith’s actions say there were few offensive comments written on the display, but instead many comments which were perceived as supportive of GLTBQ rights, including “I ❤ Queers,” and “gay is okay!” Still, on Sun News Network’s “The Source,” Smith commented “unregulated free speech leads to hate speech every single time.”

Writings on the wall read something like the scribblings in a bathroom stall. A few political statements appeared, however there were also many meaningless remarks and curses.

Sunday, on the rebuilt wall, read a short thank-you from the students for liberty group and a repetition of George Carlin’s “seven words.”

CoKehyeng said he was neither pleased nor displeased with the writings on the wall, noting that some of the content was immature.

“Writing ‘Abortion is Murder’, regardless of what you think about the issue, isn’t going to convince anybody,” he said.

“But that’s what free speech is all about, you can’t have the good without the bad….We have to be tolerant of other people’s ideas regardless of how stupid they sound.”

On Sunday, Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) council approved their resolution to “condemn an act of vandalism perpetrated by Arun Smith.” It asks their executive members to release a statement condemning Smith,  which meant to “restore the respectability of the institution,” and “assert [CUSA]’s commitment to a free and respectful campus,”

Many CUSA councillors, and students, said the incident embarrassed the university’s reputation. The minority of council argued more discussion – including a CUSA press release –  would just further glorify of Smith’s actions.

“I’m really frustrated this went through,” said acting Journalism councillor Harrison Boyd. “I don’t want to see this show up again. I don’t want Carleton University Students’ association to show up [on] Sun News.”

“We’re giving it so much more exposure than it deserves,” said Boyd.

Indeed, Smith’s actions got him some name-recognition in the media. A lot of it, Smith says, he didn’t expect. The National Post, Macleans magazine and Yahoo! news all chimed in on the events.

“The platitudes of liberalism have become so entrenched in our society. When anyone challenges them, it’s almost as if a powder-keg explodes,” Smith said.

Other students, including public affairs department councillor Sean White, wondered if this incident would affect students decision when picking a university.

Smith’s actions, and the ensuing debate, come on the heels of an unfinished clash between those who desire an ability to express their opinions and those demanding the establishment of a “safe space,” where all people should feel protected.

In December, the CUSA council dismantled a long-held ban on anti-abortion student groups. That motion was very controversial among students at Carleton, with almost 200 people signing an open letter against it.

A large majority of CUSA councillors however supported repealing the ban – as well as rewriting the associations discrimination code – in an attempt to allow more viewpoints to be expressed.

Both sides of the ongoing dispute expressed their frustrations at Sunday’s council meeting.

“I’m tired of being told I’m a terrible student representative, a bigot and a racist … because I’m representing the views of my students who come to talk to me,” said Alex Watson, another public affairs representative.

Vanessa Chipi, instrumental in passing December’s discrimination motion, said she was frustrated with how one side of the debate acts as if they have a “monopoly” on knowing how students on campus feel.

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