Free Speech Fundamentals: Where Do Educational Opportunities and Best Intentions Intersect?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Written by Jaimee-Lisa Cotter

Earlier this week, I read an article with an all too familiar sentiment.


The death of “free speech” as proclaimed by older, wiser, less sensitive-snowflake beings that operate within academic circles and cast their condescending tone down at young people who decided they’re not going to put up with things they deem offensive or inappropriate.

Danielle Robitaille, a successful criminal defence attorney who has taken on a number of high profile cases in the last few years, including being part of the defence team in the incredibly controversial Jian Ghomeshi case, was invited to present a keynote address at Wilfrid Laurier’s Brantford campus, by the Criminology Students Association for their annual conference proceedings.

After learning of plans for disruption of the address and widespread dissent among students, the Criminology Students Association cancelled the address. Laurier staff issued a statement on the Wellness and Recreation page of their website, offering support and services to survivors and other affected community members.

“Since the announcement of Robitaille's keynote and subsequent cancellation there has been increased dialogue and debate on social media and in the classroom. We recognize the range of impacts this can have on members of our community, including impacts on feelings of safety and belonging”.

The statement went on to highlight a lot of the problematic consequences, media attention and social reactions the trial elicited.

They also acknowledged the academic nature of the event, citing that was Robitaille was “invited to deliver a keynote address on gender issues and discrimination within the criminal justice system on March 8 as part of the Criminology Student Association's Criminology Conference, which is part of Laurier Brantford's Research Week”.

You can read their full statement here.

But by the end of reading both pieces, I became increasingly annoyed with both sides of the argument, as they both failed to highlight what exactly is problematic about the situation.

At this point I’d like to reiterate one thing: no one, and I mean absolutely no one, should debate the necessity for students and survivors to feel like the institutions that they fork over thousands of dollars to over the course of their education don’t provide services or support to them, especially in the case of survivors or other folks with histories of trauma. That is one thing I feel incredibly strongly about. Accessibility to counselling and other forms of mental health support services is an incredibly important part of post-secondary infrastructure, for a lot of reasons.

And not for one second do I think that because he’s been acquitted, that Ghomeshi is not a steaming garbage-pile of a human being. Because I do. My heart breaks for the women who came forward and will never receive even a fragment of an attempt at reparations or justice. 

But recalling the media attention surrounding the acquittal, I remember being frustrated to see the hatred and vilification directed towards Marie Henein (lead defence counsel) and acting co-counsel, Robitaille.

And to both scenarios I acknowledge that I cannot, and will not agree with vilifying a successful young woman for doing her job. Nor do I agree with Professor David Miller Haskell for taking a condescending tone of saying students are “killing free speech” when their goal was to not provide a platform for people to support those accused or convicted of sexual assault.  

Perhaps a more appropriate course of action here would be to offer a trigger warning, an often scoffed at but incredibly useful tool in academic settings, where students may be asked to be subject to or participate in discussions about uncomfortable, controversial or difficult topics that call into question aspects of society that are being challenged or further examined.

Had the students invited Ghiomeshi himself, I would have offered my support to those calling for the cancellation of the keynote address, without question. I would have been absolutely disgusted in the person who even thought of providing him with the opportunity. 

But they didn’t. They invited a young, successful, high-profile career-oriented woman to speak on “gender issues and discrimination within the criminal justice system”, which makes sense given the academic setting and her relevant experience in the legal system.

A lot of the reactions by both the general public and those calling for the cancellation of her keynote address make me wonder if it ever occurred to people that Robitaille didn’t choose to become a criminal defence attorney to take on cases that did nothing to challenge her professionally, or push her career forward. 

Speaking Monday with thecannon.ca, defence attorney Stephanie DiGiuseppe of Toronto firm Derstine-Penman had some insight to offer on the reputation and criticism that a lot of professionals in the industry face on a daily basis: “Unfortunately the public often misinterprets the role of defence counsel. Just like the crown, judge and jury, we perform, fundamentally, a public service.” 

Watching the fallout of both the trial and the event cancellation reminded me of the familiar criticism that many professional women face after attempts to push their career forward. What would be classified as ambition or potential in other professional endeavours (or dare I say other genders in the same profession) was coined a “betrayal of sisterhood” and a “traitor to women”. 

“When we accept a difficult case it does not mean we agree with the crime an individual has been accused of, nor should it be seen as a personal endorsement of that individual. It's not our role to prejudge a case and withhold our services because of our personal opinion.” DiGiuseppe continued.

“In the case law that talks about the role of defence counsel, the court speaks often of the need for defence counsel to be fearless. And there is a lot of truth to that, especially when you take on a serious case or an unpopular client. The public - and even friends and acquaintances - may fundamentally misunderstand your role and see your decision to defend someone as a personal enforcement of the crime or the person. However, as counsel we put our personal opinions - good or bad - to the side and fearlessly [defend] every client to the same degree.”

At the end of the day, I’m left with an awkward myriad of feelings for several demographics:

I feel defensive of women like Robitaille, who enter difficult careers or job fields and often have to fight nail and tooth against varying forms of backlash for the sake of carving out a space for themselves in the professional world.

I feel great sympathy for survivors of sexual assault and other traumatic experiences, who are often not provided with services or support to help them heal at whatever pace they find suitable, especially in a high-stress setting like post-secondary institutions.

I feel a surge of annoyance towards people like Professor Haskell, who refuse to acknowledge that progress is built on education and discussion, without disregarding the greater impacts those discussions can have on certain members of society. If we can act in a considerate manner and hope to include these people and minimize the damaging impact these situations have on them, why would we not do that? That seems to be more common sense and courtesy than silencing free speech.

I feel empathy with the folks that protested the event, because I really and truly do understand their convictions and values behind this movement. I’ve found myself to be a part of very similar initiatives, and I do think their intentions were an incredibly important part of the attention and inclusivity all events that take place on the campuses of publicly funded research institutions deserve.

But mostly I feel a sense of depravity for the students who may have missed out on an insightful educational opportunity, because of people on extreme opposite ends of the spectrum have a hard time with reflexive, critical thinking and the ability to operate outside their own personal worldviews.

You’re the reason we can’t have nice things. 

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