Carleton Free Speech Wall torn down in name of safe space

This is my latest published article for the Canadian University Press. It looks at the definition of free speech and whether or not it is conducive to a university “safe space”.

Carleton Free Speech Wall torn down in name of safe space

Katherine DeClerq — CUP Ontario Bureau Chief

(Photo courtesy of Facebook)


OTTAWA (CUP) — The Carleton Free Speech Wall was an initiative put forth by the Carleton Students for Liberty Society (SFL) that was meant to measure the level of discourse on campus. For five days, students were encouraged to write on the wall and enact their rights of free expression.

On Jan. 21, Arun Smith, Campaign Coordinator for the Challenge Homophobia and Transphobia Campaign, removed the display from the Unicentre Galleria.

“When we talk about free speech we forget to talk about the structures behind it and the way free speech can be used to reinforce and create violence and hatred,” said Smith.

“In the case of the free speech wall, it’s unregulated free speech, and unlimited free speech will always dissolve into hate speech, and that is exactly why, to prevent the triggering of students, the expression of hatred and the invalidation of people’s identities, I took down the wall.”

Ian CoKehyeng, president of SFL, maintained that the comments on the wall were primarily positive, and that he was surprised at the maturity of the campus.

“You can’t have the good without the bad,” said CoKehyeng in response to some of the negative comments written on the Carleton Free Speech Wall.

“We wanted to challenge the monopoly of opinions that we felt were happening on the university campus and create a marketplace of ideas. We didn’t know what the end goal was going to be — it could have ended really badly or ended very well, [but] it has been very positive.”

However, Smith does not believe that the positive messages outweighed the alleged negative overtones of the others. He cited phrases such as “abortion is murder” and “traditional marriage is awesome” as examples of how the Carleton Free Speech Wall was not conducive to a safe and tolerant university space.

CoKeyheng explained that Smith had always been wary of the project, insisting that it would create an unsafe space on campus.

“[Smith] was already complaining about it before the wall was up, accusing us of putting up a platform for potential homophobia,” said CoKehyeng.

A second wall has been erected Unicentre and there have been no further damages.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), the organization that sponsored the project, was saddened by the display’s removal, but said that they were proud of the way the SFL rebounded its efforts.

“It’s very disappointing to see that level of ignorance about what free speech is about. The person who stole or removed the wall had their opportunity, along with everybody else, to express their opinions,” said JCCF president John Carpay. “If we allow personal subjection of hate to be a tool for censorship, then neither Smith nor anyone else has any free speech left over.”

“These students have character and persistence, and it is good to see that they won’t allow themselves to become completely discouraged by this.”

Student Affairs at Carleton University is currently considering the application of sanctions against Smith based on the Student Rights and Responsibilities Code for damage to property under $500.00. Disciplinary action can include a fine and an apology.

Student Affairs has confirmed that this is the first incident of its kind at Carleton.


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