Let’s hear all voices

February 10, 2005

What a relief that Assumption University refused to be intimidated by religious zealots.

If the venerable Catholic institution at the University of Windsor had buckled under pressure from anti-abortion activists and rescinded its invitation to Stephen Lewis to speak Sunday, it would have been a body blow to free expression and to the U of W’s already shaky credibility.

Lewis, arguably the finest orator Canada has produced in half a century, is that rarest of individuals, a prominent ex-politician who chose service to humanity over money-grubbing self-aggrandizement. While his peers scrambled to join corporate boards, feed at the public trough or peddle their influence to lobbying firms, the former Ontario NDP leader has used his persuasive genius and silver-tongued delivery to become the conscience of a spoiled and complacent developed world.

It boggles the mind anyone, regardless of their stand on abortion, would want to gag one of this country’s genuine heroes, an individual whose efforts as UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa have been instrumental in alerting the planet to a catastrophe that’s killing millions.

If someone harbours a deep passion for the rights of the unborn, surely there should be some respect, however grudging, for an individual whose passion for the rights of the living to continue living, regardless of circumstances, has been instrumental in saving countless lives.

Yes. Lewis has been an outspoken defender of abortion. And yes it’s a subject that makes many Canadians, including non-Catholics, uncomfortable. It makes me ill to think of callous individuals exercising their "right to choose" for the seventh or eighth time at Windsor Western because they’ve chosen abortion, with taxpayers picking up the tab, as their primary means of birth control.

But if all defenders of abortion are to be banned from Catholic university campuses, as the Campaign Life Coalition appears to be demanding, they would become lonely bastions of brittle group thinking, the antithesis of a well-rounded education. Where does it go from there? Should all books whose authors happen to be pro-abortion be consigned to the flames? Should students attending Assumption be required to provide sworn affidavits that they’ve never had an abortion?

Campaign Life has warned it will picket the Christian Culture Series event unless the invitation is withdrawn. Fine. Bring it on. Protests are welcome expressions of divergent views, especially on a university campus, and Campaign Life should be free to voice its opinion.

These are strange times on university campuses. Forces of intolerance are on the march, quashing dissent and trying to silence those who don’t share their views.

At the University of Colorado this week, according to Reuters, Ward Churchill, a tenured professor under attack for comparing World Trade Center victims to a Nazi war criminal, drew cheers for refusing to apologize despite a torrent of political outrage, including demands from the state governor that he be fired.

Was Churchill’s comparison over-the-top? No doubt. But free speech isn’t about protecting mom and apple pie statements. It’s about defending the right to express views we find uncomfortable, even repugnant.

Meanwhile, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers has been forced to apologize for suggesting, in an attempt to provoke discussion, that innate differences between the sexes might account for male dominance in science and math.

David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the Christian Science Monitor he could "give example after example where speech that is considered offensive by any particular group that has a disproportionate amount of power on the campus is subject to censorship and repression."

Concordia University in Montreal suffered enormous damage to its reputation when it allowed violent protests in 2002 and "safety concerns" in 2004 to cancel planned speeches by two former Israeli prime ministers. Concordia has since spent a bundle on national advertising to restore its tattered image. It appears Windsor’s defenders of free speech are made of better stuff. They refuse to be cowed into submission. Hats off to them.

Schools: Harvard University University of Colorado at Boulder