Editorial—The Edge Case

Perhaps you’ve seen the recent video where the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn State, three of the most well known universities in America, were interviewed by Congress and each asked the question “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate _________ code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment.”

In general, the replies were “It depends on the context,” or “When those calls turn to action.” which the original twitter post author strongly, and rightly, condemns.

And yet, there is always the other side of things. In the current environment, many universities are leery of being seen as hindering free speech, and also, the question is in many ways a bit of a trap, because policies on bullying and harassment almost always include the notion of there being a specific individual.

AU’s own policy on Harassment, Violence, and Sexual Violence is an example of this, where harassment is defined as “any single incident or repeated incidents of objectionable or unwelcome conduct, comment, bullying or action by a person that the person knows, or ought to reasonably know, will or would cause offense or humiliation to another person or adversely affects another person’s physical or psychological well-being.”  Calls for genocide of the Jewish people may fall under this, under the line of “will or would cause offense”, however, without a specific complainant, it also might not, because although it seems some things would always be considered to be offensive, at the end of the day, offense is a subjective matter, and without a specific complainant, it becomes difficult to say offense has been caused.  After all, universities have been attacked for shutting down speech about all sorts of things.  As example, the University of Lethbridge was taken to task by the government and by the Canadian Association of University Teachers for their refusal to host Frances Widdowson, who became known through comments suggesting an educational benefit from residential schools.

So those presidents were, I believe, understandably reluctant to say that their harassment or bullying policies say something when it is highly likely that it could be argued they don’t (and knowing an expected follow-up question would simply be, “where does it say that?”), but also extremely reluctant to claim that they’d act to punish a student just for espousing views that are objectionable.  That said, did they do a horrible job of presenting that idea?  Absolutely.

But yet again, between two sides, there’s always the edge case.  Calls for violence against a people should always be met with consequences demonstrating that they are not welcome—even if they don’t lead to action, even if they’re just an opinion.  Any such calls should not be speech that we welcome, or even give space to.  That should be the edge case, just like calling out “fire!” in a crowded theatre is not protected for the possibility of injuring someone, calling for violence or genocide should also never be protected, even if anybody taking action upon those calls is extremely unlikely, and especially in cases where tensions are already high and people are, let’s say “on edge.”

Enjoy the read!