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Weaponizing Words: The Dilemmas of Free Speech


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In recent years, one of the most contentious issues has become the limits of free speech. On the one hand, as Joan Wallach Scott has argued, free speech has been “weaponized by the right,” as was recently exemplified by Milo Yiannopoulos’s ill-fated speaking engagement at UC Berkeley. Free speech becomes the opportunity to provoke, insult and even threaten members of vulnerable communities. On the other hand, free speech is vital not only to liberal-democratic institutions, but also to the activity of political dissent and ultimately the possibility of radical alternatives that break dramatically with the status quo. Such dissent has become increasingly imperilled around the world, from Turkey and India to the United States. In Canada, we see repeated attacks on the right to dissent in the form of the proliferation of SLAPP suits or Strategic Law Suits Against Public Participation, the Anti-Terror Legislation formerly known as Bill C-51, attacks on the freedom of the press, etc. The dilemmas of free speech and expression are deep and seemingly intractable, especially for those progressives who are committed both to the protection of vulnerable communities and to robust dissent and meaningful social change. Two philosophical statements that best reflect contemporary dilemmas of free speech are J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, which argues that individuals’ freedoms ought to be maximized so long as these freedoms do not “harm” others, and Herbert Marcuse’s concept of “repressive tolerance,” which suggests that Mill’s liberal defence of free speech, rather than promoting genuine alternatives, only serves to inhibit them by buttressing the prevailing one-dimensionality of advanced industrial society.

Drawing upon his recent article in openDemocracy, the Director of the Institute for the Humanities, Samir Gandesha, will reflect on Mill’s and Marcuse’s contributions to the dilemma of Free speech and expression and academic freedom. His lecture will be followed by responses from Morgane Oger, BC NDP Vice-President, and Micheal Vonn of the BCCLA.


Samir Gandesha is an Associate Professor in the Department of the Humanities and the Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University. He specializes in modern European thought and culture, with a particular emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. His work has appeared in Political Theory, New German Critique, Constellations Logos, Kant Studien, Philosophy and Social Criticism, Topia, the European Legacy, the European Journal of Social Theory, Art Papers, the Cambridge Companion to Adorno and Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader as well as in several other edited books. He is co-editor with Lars Rensmann of Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations (Stanford, 2012). He is co-editor (with Johan Hartle) of Spell of Capital: Reification and Spectacle (University of Amsterdam Press, 2017) and Aesthetic Marx (Bloomsbury Press, 2017) also with Johan Hartle. He has also contributed to openDemocracy, Canadian Dimension, the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail. In the Spring of 2017, he was the Liu Boming Visiting Scholar in Philosophy at the University of Nanjing and Visiting Lecturer at Suzhou University of Science and Technology in China.


Morgane Oger is the Executive Director of the Morgane Oger Foundation, which works to narrow the gap between human rights laws as they are written and as they are experienced by Canadians. Morgane Oger was the BC NDP candidate in the then BC Liberal stronghold of Vancouver-False Creek during the 2017 General Election. Working across party lines, Oger has become recognized as an effective community organizer and educator, changing hearts and minds to help win significant change on issues focused around equality, LGBTQ2+ inclusion, and accessible education. Oger has helped shape Canada’s human rights law, write police policies, improve healthcare delivery, pen policy for K-12 education, prevent extrajudicial deportations overseas, protect trans youth in schools, and formulate national transgender policy. Previously on the City of Vancouver LGBTQ2+ advisory committee and on the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council where she served as Chair, Oger volunteers on the Vancouver Police Department LGBTQ2+ advisory group, with Women Against Violence Against Women, and mentors aspiring young politicians with intersectional experiences.

Micheal Vonn is a lawyer and has been the Policy Director of the BCCLA since 2004. She has been an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the Faculty of Law and in the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies where she has taught civil liberties and information ethics. She is a regular guest instructor for UBC’s College of Health Disciplines Interdisciplinary Elective in HIV/AIDS Care. She has been honoured for her work in HIV/AIDS with both an AccolAIDS Award and a Red Ribbon Award, and she is the recipient of the 2015 Keith Sacré Library Champion Award for support, guidance and assistance given to the BC library community. Her publication credits include the Birkbeck Law Review, Surveillance and Society, Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law, and Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law. Ms. Vonn is a frequent speaker on a variety of civil liberties topics including privacy, national security, policing, surveillance and free speech. She is currently a collaborator on Big Data Surveillance, a multi-year research projected lead by Queens University. She is an Advisory Board Member of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression and an Advisory Board Member of Privacy International.


Co-sponsored by SFU's Institute for the Humanities.

This event will take place on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

Event is FREE and open to the public. If you would like to donate to the Institute to help fund future events like this one, please visit http://www.sfu.ca/humanities-institute/donate.html.

ASL requests must be submitted at least 3 weeks prior the event to insthum@sfu.ca.