“Free Speech Does Not Exist Outside Of Its Social Context”: McGill Student Groups Seek To Strip Professor Of Emeritus Status

Montreal’s McGill University is the latest school facing an attack on free speech and academic freedom.  We have followed efforts to fire professors who hold opposing views on police abuse or the Black Lives Matter organization. At McGill, eight student groups have gone further. They want to rescind the emeritus status of a retired professor to retroactively punish him for opposing their views.  Professor Philip Carl Salzman is a well-known anthropologist with an impressive record of publications and recognitions.  However, students are demanding the rare action to “protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues.”  They further declare in an open letter that free speech “does not exist outside of its social context” and that it has been shown to be “dictated by whiteness.”

We have been discussing efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views of the basis or demands of recent protests including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn.

The McGill open letter is signing on behalf of eight groups:

The Students’ Society of McGill University Executive Team
The Anthropology Students Association
The Anthropology Graduate Students Association
World Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies Association
Black Students Network
Muslim Students Association
Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights
Thaqalayn Muslim Association

The letter explains why free speech should not be a barrier to punishing faculty for holding unacceptable or controversial views. Indeed, free speech itself is deemed harmful:

Freedom of expression is traditionally considered central to permitting the free exchange of ideas and debate and fostering the university environment. Free speech, however, does not exist outside of its social context. David Gillborn, a critical race theorist at the University of Birmingham, suggests that the terms of what is considered ‘legitimate’ speech are dictated by whiteness, since “[w]hiteness operates to invest speech with different degrees of legitimacy, such that already debunked racist beliefs can enjoy repeated public airings where they are lauded as scientific and rational by many White [sic] listeners, who simultaneously define as irrational, emotional, or exaggerated the opposing views of people of colour.” Moreover, evidence from psychology, social work, and medicine suggest that microaggressions, including racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic speech, have numerous and significant impacts on the health, wellbeing, and educational success of marginalized people.

The defence of discriminatory dialogue at the expense of the safety, security, and wellbeing of people of colour reflects the power of whiteness in determining what is and is not considered acceptable speech. Upholding free speech at the cost of marginalized groups permits racist talk with real-world impacts; it teaches future generations that perpetrating this kind of harm is acceptable. These harms are not hypothetical; they have been and will continue to be felt by marginalized communities on campuses across the country.

The letter captures the chilling shift on our campus. Students and faculty were once the bulwark against speech controls and regulations. They are now calling for the censorship and silencing of those with opposing views. The “real-world impacts” that concern them do not include a world without free speech. Now free speech must be curtailed to conform to the “social context.”

The point of free speech is that it is not relative to the social context.  It can change social contexts (as did the speech of figures like Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk), but it is not dependent on social context. Free speech is a human right to expression. Society will not always approve of the viewpoints of some but free speech allows each person — including these students — to express their values and beliefs.

In a statement to The College Fix, Brooklyn Frizzle, vice president of student affairs with the Students’ Society, further explained that “no freedom is without limits” and that “freedom of expression cannot be used to defend hate speech.”  She said that the initial complaint against Saltzman came from the Canadian Arab Federation, which previously attempted to get McGill University to publicly condemn Salzman’s writings.

What is particularly chilling is the example cited for this action, a clear opinion expressed by Salzman on the Middle East:

In the past year, several articles have been posted on public forums by Professor Philip Carl Salzman, a retired Professor Emeritus of the McGill Anthropology Department. In one recent example, Salzman goes on to write that “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty.” Salzman goes on to condemn multiculturalismimmigrationgender paritycultural equalitysocial justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, along with dismissing the existence of rape culture and systemic racism.

Despite their editorial nature, Salzman’s opinions are presented as though they are objective facts. …

Framing this as an issue of Professor Salzman’s academic freedom, rather than the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe, illustrates the ways in which McGill maintains structures that protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues.

In a now common construct by liberal groups seeking to limit free speech and academic freedom, the students simply brush over the “editorial nature” of such writings. Instead, they insist that the opinions are “presented as though they are objective facts.”  Most opinions are stated from a perspective that they are correct in their historical, political, or social viewpoint.  Yet, the letter shows an increasingly common construct of denouncing opposing viewpoints as “fake news” or “disinformation.”

They are not alone. We have have been discussing how writerseditorscommentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. Even journalists are leading attacks on free speech and the free press.  This includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy. Now, Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation.

In his response, Salzman tries to explain the difference between dialogue and diatribes on our campuses:

It appears to have eluded the students supporting this petition that a university is supposed to be a place where opinions, views, and theories are exchanged and critically assessed. I would welcome critiques of my articles through argument and evidence and am prepared to defend my positions. But these students have made no attempt to challenge my articles with contrary arguments and contradictory evidence. Their view appears to be that diversity of opinion about important subjects is unacceptable. Faced with opinions that they dislike, they attack the messenger rather than the message. And they move swiftly from accusation to sentence, without bothering to pass through argument and evidence.

I assume that McGill will stand firm on academic freedom and free speech. However, the greater danger is the growing anti-free speech movement on our campuses. The open letter of these students expresses views that were once deemed extreme and anti-intellectual. They are increasingly become mainstream as students and faculty alike yield to the temptation to silence those with opposing views.

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