Carleton activist tears down ‘free-speech wall,’ sparking campus flap

(Handout photo)
University campuses have always contained fault lines where conflicting political and ideological views rub together, occasionally provoking a tremor that rattles the metaphorical china.

There's been fresh tectonic activity at Ottawa's Carleton University (my alma mater), where a so-called "free-speech wall" was destroyed by a campus activist who, according to the National Post, objected to it as an anti-gay "act of violence."

Arun Smith, who's apparently in the seventh year of study towards a degree in human rights and political science, posted a 600-word rant on his Facebook page on Monday claiming responsibility for tearing down the wall — essentially a 4x8 panel wrapped in paper and supplied with markers for writing.

"I take full and sole responsibility for this action, I understand that there will likely be consequences, and I am prepared for the imposition of those consequences, however unjust they might be," Smith said. "In fact, it is in response to injustice that I have found myself with no recourse beyond this."

[ Related: 'Campus Freedom Index' gives free speech a failing grade at Canadian universities]

Smith suggested the wall was set up as a provocation during "our Pride Week," when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students are "supposed to be able to seek liberation and celebrate our diversity." It was, he said, "offensive, ill-considered and dangerous."

The wall "is but another in a series of acts of violence against we who are forced every day to try and justify who we are, to try and justify our humanity and our being deserving of respect, dignity, and consideration," Smith wrote.

Just what oppressive remarks prompted Smith to take down the wall? According to the Post, there were no anti-gay comments. Quite the contrary, they included statements such as "queers are awesome," "gay is OK" and "I [heart] queers."

The closest anything came to being construed as homophobic was a comment "traditional marriage is awesome," the Post said.

The wall was set up by Carleton's chapter of Students for Liberty, a U.S.-based group with libertarian roots that says its mission is "to provide a unified, student-driven forum of support for students and student organizations dedicated to liberty."

The group's supporters have been responsible for free-speech walls on other campuses, which it notes have also been torn down by students and in one case a professor, it said in a post on its web site Tuesday.

"There is a clear trend of physical resistance to an idea as basic and fundamental to human freedom as free speech," the post said.

Carleton Students for Liberty Founder Ian CoKehyeng defended the group's creation of the wall in the busy campus Unicentre Galleria.

“What we wanted to promote was competition of ideas, rather than ‘if I disagree with you I’ve got to censor you,’” he told the Post, hinting at the irony that an LGBT activist tore down the wall.

“Free speech is a friend of minorities; it shouldn’t be people who feel marginalized in society who are trampling on free speech."

Smith got a lot of support for his action via Facebook and Twitter but some found his views on free speech, which he called an "illusory concept," too extreme.

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"Not every opinion is valid, nor deserving of expression," he tweeted.

"You don't get to make that call," responded CBC News reporter Kady O'Malley.

"Just watch me," Smith replied, invoking Pierre Trudeau after he invoked the War Measures Act at the height of the 1970 FLQ Crisis.

"Dude, I'm sure you think that sounded cool, but you just come across as egotistical and self-deluded," Christopher White.

Meanwhile, Students for Liberty is rebuilding its wall.

"There is nothing safe about censorship," CoKehyeng said.