On April 26, 1968, a young man named Paul Robert Cohen was arrested for wearing a jacket in the Los Angeles Courthouse, bearing the words “F–k the Draft.” The jacket, according to Cohen, expressed his sentiments about the Vietnam War and the use of conscription by the US Government.
Cohen was charged under California’s Penal Code for “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person [by] offensive conduct,” and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The incident led to one of the most famous and important rulings in US jurisprudence regarding free expression.
The US Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1971, ruling that Cohen’s speech was protected under the First Amendment. On the use of obscene language, Justice John Marshall Harlan famously wrote for the majority that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
Political issues often drive passion, and passion may cause vulgarity, but such is par for the course in a free and democratic society. “To many, the immediate consequence of this freedom may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance,” Justice Harlan observed. “These are … in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve. That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength.”
But weakness was on display at Carleton University in Ottawa this week, when university administrators agreed to lay sanctions against students who wore shirts bearing the words “F–k Safe Space” to an off-campus party. Students have claimed the intent of the shirts was to voice opposition to policies that prohibit swearing and drinking on campus.
It appears the designers were not aware (or were perhaps misinformed) that at Carleton, “Safe Space” refers to efforts by Carleton’s Equity Services division to “reduce the impact of homophobia and heterosexism on campus.” Regardless, these students’ intent was to voice their opposition towards policies to which they are subject — a right which is, on and off-campus, the most sacred and protected form of expression in Canada.
The proper functioning of the university demands a free exchange of ideas. Shutting down dissent sends a message to current and future students that at Carleton, you should hold your tongue or be reprimanded. Punishing these tuition-paying students because they voiced an opinion about the university they attend (while off-campus!) is synonymous with California’s ruling that Cohen was causing a disturbance for peacefully stating his opinion about his own government’s conscription policy.
What is worse is that these students were bullied and intimidated into apologizing for wearing the shirts, and bullied into agreeing to perform community service throughout the year to repair Carleton’s “sullied space” after such “unsafe” remarks.
This capitulation is no surprise, considering that a failure to apologize would mean a permanently tarnished record, even to the point of expulsion. In 2010, Carleton University charged its own students with trespassing for trying to set up a controversial pro-life display in a high-traffic area of campus.
In light of this, and considering the amount of taxpayer dollars universities have at their disposal to fight lengthy court battles, I understand where these students are coming from.
But Canada needs more Paul Robert Cohens.
Michael Kennedy is the communications and development coordinator for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca). He is the coauthor of the Campus Freedom Index, an annual report that measures the state of free speech at Canada’s public universities. (The 2014 edition will be released later this month.) Follow @MichaelMKennedy.