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Letter: It’s about intolerance, not free speech

This letter addresses Brian Jones’ column, “University’s reaction to posters was cowardly,” (The Telegram, Oct. 12, 2017). Memorial University president Gary Kachanoski responded recently to anti-Muslim posters found across the Memorial University campus by having them officially censored and taken down.

Jones’ suggestion that this was a blow to “free speech” deflects the real issue: how we are to deal with xenophobia and Islamophobia in Canada? The posters appear on our campus at a time when anti-Muslim bigotry and violence has occurred across Canada (the shooting at a mosque in Quebec, for example, which led to a human shield around the mosque in St. John’s last spring). So framing the situation as one of free speech is misguided and inappropriate. This is not the time or place for an abstract debate on “free speech,” but a time for action on Islamophobia.

Instead of addressing hate and intolerance toward Muslims, Jones chose instead to give us his opinion on an alleged breach in the “freedom of speech.” He thus adds insult to the injuries that this poster caused to many in our community who experience fear and racism on an ongoing basis. Jones’ comments are callous in this regard and are, really, symptomatic of part of a bigger problem for mainstream mass media: how to respond to racism and religious intolerance. President Kachanoski’s condemnation of the offensive posters should be praised, not criticized. His responsible action against this public act of intolerance and hatred aims to create a safe university space for all (and not just Muslims). 

Instead of addressing hate and intolerance toward Muslims, Jones chose instead to give us his opinion on an alleged breach in the “freedom of speech.”

The outraged and courageous people who tore down the posters also had the right to speak out against the presence of the noxious posters. That is the nature of “speaking.” By tearing down posters, they, along with the university president, spoke out to condemn such acts of racism and malicious ignorance. By entering into the discussion, by condemning the act and by affirming the university’s position on hate, the university authorities were doing the right thing. They clearly spoke out against such cowardly and anonymous acts of hatred.

Sure, let’s talk about free speech. We could start, as Jones suggests, with the University of Calgary’s Speaker’s Corner. Did you ever see it used, Mr. Jones? I didn’t, during my studies there over the 12 years I lived in Calgary. It was really just a monument to an ideal, rather than a centre of free-speech activity. In 1987, in MacEwan Hall, the same student centre that housed the Speaker’s Corner, I attended a presentation by the apartheid-era South African ambassador to Canada, Glen Babb. There was such a loud and raucous concerted response by 99 per cent of the full-to-capacity room (mostly angry students), that he was ushered off the stage. This was what free speech looks like, one that had a well-known international conclusion — the end of apartheid.

In the name of free speech, we could give the anonymous hate posterer the same platform here at MUN. But all things considered, why bother with such an event when we all know how any such perpetrator of spite and ill will would be firmly denounced by friendly and welcoming Newfoundlanders. Better off to just tear the hateful posters down and find ways of creating a world without ignorance, xenophobia and hate.

Nigel Moses
St. John’s


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