- Freedom of speech is not absolute. When the costs of competition in the marketplace for ideas outweigh the benefits (e.g. shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre), that type of speech is not allowed.
- Freedom of speech does not mean that others must provide scarce resources for you to exercise this right. We have no obligation to provide you with a radio station, a newspaper, or any other venue to present your views. What we do have is an obligation to let you use your own scarce resources to promote your views (so long as doing so does not violate the first point, above).
I'm writing about this because recently I was accused of violating someone's freedom of speech.
The situation was this: there has been a huge debate on the campus of The University of Regina about whether the students should remain members of the Canadian Students' Federation. As is usual in situations like this, students often approach professors, asking if they can have a few minutes at the beginning of class to address the students in that class.
I have never allowed presentations like this (or about job opportunities, etc.) in my classes. And so when I was approached outside one class by someone from one faction I replied, "Absolutely not!" And later that day, when I was approached by someone else from the opposite faction outside a different class, I again replied, "Absolutely not!"
I then informed the students in both classes not to ask to address their classmates on matters not directly related to the coursework, explaining that in my 64 years of teaching, I have never permitted my classroom to become a forum for political debate or entrepreneurial activities.
I was quite surprised that evening to receive the following e-mail message:
I am sure you have received an email from URFA [University of Regina Faculty Association] announcing that should be allowing students to engage in the freedom of speech. They support the allowance of students speaking about the referendum. Today you disallowed me from speaking in your class, but we will most likely be sending someone again as we think it is vital for students to be aware of the referendum and becoming engaged university citizens. Please re-consider your decision.
I responded that I had not received any such e-mail and that I had checked with colleagues who informed me there is no university obligation to let students address the classes on such topics. I also pointed out the difference between freedom of speech and freedom to use other people's scarce resources to promote an idea. And I noted that both sides of the campaign use pamphlets, posters, tables in the corridors, etc. to promote their views to their fellow students; there is clearly no abrogation of "freedom of speech" taking place here.
And now, several days later, I am still bothered by the incident. It turns out the Faculty Association at The University of Regina has been debating whether faculty members should say anything or allow the students to say anything about the CFS. They have not issued any e-mail obligating us to do anything.
Also, as one my colleagues discovered, allowing students from one side of an issue to make such a presentation leads to demands for equal time from students supporting the other side; classrooms become debate forums, taking time away from what should be going on there. If students want the university to provide debating forums, I'm sure the university would oblige (and probably has). But there is no plausible argument to cut into class time to provide those forums.
Update: no student approached me prior to any of my ensuing classes, asking to address the class.