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Convenience should never trump free speech

Our university has banned students from holding a discussion forum on campus this week because they don’t like what they’re talking about. If this sounds unreasonable, that’s probably because we normally take our right to freely express ourselves for granted.

Student club Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) planned to host a panel discussion and public forum this Friday, Sept. 5, on the conflict in Gaza. The event will no longer happen on campus. University administration, acting on a campus security risk assessment, declined the event booking. 

Administration brought up the potential conflict with orientation week activities as a reason for banning the event. This would make sense, except the forum is taking place late Friday evening, a time when no orientation events are scheduled outside of McMahon Stadium. 

Even temporary bans set a dangerous precedent. Free speech doesn’t have a time frame. University administration shouldn’t be able to pick which events are approved based on convenience or the current political mood. The freedom to speak about
contentious issues isn’t only for people who share our opinions. 

Every year, Campus Pro-Life has a display called the Genocide Awareness Project. They compare abortion to slavery, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Walking to get lunch in MacHall leads you past blown up photos of stacked corpses and bodies swinging from trees. 

If a group that uses gory images and angry rhetoric can stand outside and harass people on their way to class, the administration’s reasoning that a public forum on a prominent news item might be too heated is ludicrous. Freedom of expression should be a core value of post-secondary institutions, especially when it’s not politically convenient. 

Administration’s primary reason for banning the event is SPHR’s connection to an outbreak of violence at a July 18 rally for Gaza. It was the second in a series of protests opposing Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. A fight broke out in the streets as several people protesting for Palestine swarmed people with Israeli flags. Within minutes the instigators were pulled off by their fellow protesters. If you bring 1,000 people into the streets, especially on an issue as emotive as the violence in Gaza, you’re going to get some violent jerks who are only there to make trouble. 

The violence during the July rally was despicable. It violated our values and our ability to publicly dissent. It’s frightening to think that carrying an Israeli flag in public could result in violence. 

But SPHR is not responsible for the actions of all people they share some political beliefs with. People who support Palestine are not a homogenous group. Hosting a discussion on a political issue doesn’t encourage violence. By conflating the two, we discourage people who talk about difficult

SPHR informed Calgary police about the rally and the number of people they expected to attend. The police later admitted they made a mistake in not maintaining a presence at the rally from the beginning. SPHR condemned the violence and issued an apology the following morning. 

The violence at the protest was unequivocally wrong. But it does a disservice to the people who were attacked for publicly expressing their opinion to turn around and prevent someone else from expressing that same fundamental right.

Neither the Students’ Union nor the Clubs Committee take issue with SPHR. The club maintains a cordial relationship with Hillel, the Jewish students’ organization. Their events are respectful, organized and well-attended. Of course, their content is politically contentious and not everyone on campus agrees with their agenda. 

But public debate is for all ideas, not just ones we agree with. We can’t have a discussion on controversial issues if we’re ignoring or banning ideas that make us uncomfortable. Controversy is important to debate. It allows people to see both sides of an argument and form their own opinions. 

We don’t stop violence by refusing to speak about the issues causing it. Banning people from hosting discussions because you think it will make people angry is cowardly and morally inconsistent. 

Over orientation week, the U of C pays lip service to a positive learning environment and student driven change. Hundreds of first-year students wore shirts with the words “be a changemaker” across the front. At the same time, administration punishes student activists for actions beyond their control by quelling a difficult conversation. Apparently being a changemaker is only for when our opinions are politically expedient. If you inconvenience middle-management, political activism takes a back seat.

We’re welcoming new students to campus with the message that we shouldn’t organize politically, tackle contentious issues or have dissident opinions. Welcome to the U of C, y’all.

Kate Jacobson, Gauntlet Editorial Board

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