Unfree precedent


The decision earlier this month by Queen’s University to forcibly remove a free-speech wall erected by Queen’s Students for Liberty, on the grounds that the wall contained hate speech, has rallied troops to their respective battle lines. A much-needed intellectual conversation has turned into yet another standoff, with each side claiming to be the odds-on-favourite to win in the courts.

For the defence, Queen’s Students for Liberty is backed by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which says the removal of the free-speech wall was illegal; for the prosecution, Queen’s provost and vice-principal (academic) Alan Harrison upholds the decision to remove the wall, telling reporters that the university would take the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

This rush to lawyer-up serves only to further distance the issue of freedom of speech from the university campus, which is where the debate over its importance should arguably be most productive.

Both provost Harrison and principal daniel Woolf are on record as saying that the free-speech wall contained hate speech. While both men have acknowledged that free-speech issues are inherently controversial and that it is “arguable” where the limits to free speech should be drawn, they have categorically insisted that hate speech is demonstrable in this case.

But hate speech is an indictable offence in Canada. Will the university administrators – being apparently fully convinced of their claims – launch an investigation in order to determine who is responsible for the comments in question? Will they pass on the outcome of that investigation to the relevant human rights commission or, if warranted, police force? Queen’s apparent lack of interest in opening such an investigation suggests that the administrators either believe in the selective enforcement of hate speech laws, or do not believe, or cannot substantiate, that this case meets the conditions for hate speech. yet they pulled the wall down right away. Were they collecting evidence?

Indeed, the removal of the wall – which is property of the student group – has established an interesting precedent. Provost Harrison seems to think this is a minor issue, since the university promised to return the materials. What if, however, the comment(s) deemed offensive on the free-speech wall appeared instead on a bumper sticker in the Queen’s University parking lot? Would the university order the car removed from the lot, to be returned to the owner at the discretion of Queen’s administrators?

That some of the language on the Queen’s free-speech wall could be considered offensive is not, in my opinion, in dispute. Photos of the wall show at least two comments that could offend on religious and racial grounds, therein contravening the multiple speech and conduct codes that have been cited by the university. But the school must still substantiate the claim of hate speech, since this was the explicit justification of provost Harrison and principal Woolf for removing the free-speech wall.

Moreover, it seems that there are reasonable grounds to consider (or at least discuss) why offensive content on a temporary free-speech wall is summarily purged when similarly offensive language and ideas are permanently accessible through university libraries. Consider, for example, The Satanic Verses, The Mischievous Nigger, Mein Kampf, or any of the 20-plus titles by Susan Sontag, who once called the white race “the cancer of human history.” Since principal Woolf has made it clear that “demeaning each other based on race, religion or any other affiliation will not be tolerated,” we might also consider what to do with the posters urging us to “Eat the rich” that have of late circulated around campus.

There is a difference between something that may be considered offensive and morally objectionable, and something that is against the law. The uncritical and unilateral reaction to the free-speech wall on the part of Queen’s administration suggests that we need to work harder as a scholarly community to both recognize and respect this important distinction (especially given several other major scandals relating to free expression that have occurred on campus in recent years). In order to do that, however, we need to resist the temptation to outsource our most controversial and challenging debates to the courts, and keep them on the university campus where they belong.

Victoria L. Henderson
PhD Candidate and IHS/Bernard Marcus Fellow
(Link to the op-ed)


Publication Information:
Henderson, Victoria L. (2013) Unfree precedent. National Post. 15 April, A10.

Indigenous split


2013 January 16
Re: Idle Founder Rejects Blockades
Since the public protest of Chief Theresa Spence and the near-simultaneous Idle No More movement began, I have received no shortage of emails inviting me to support “the indigenous” movement in Canada. As this article makes clear, the question becomes which indigenous group – or, better yet, which set of demands – one is being invited to support. People who wax poetic on “the indigenous” do aboriginals a great disservice by erasing the diversity of interests and competing claims that exist among individuals in these communities, like all others.

Victoria L. Henderson
PhD Candidate and IHS Thomas C. and Irene W. Graham Fellow
(Link to the article that prompted this letter)


Publication Information:
Henderson, Victoria L. (2013) Indigenous split. National Post. 18 January, A9.

The Austrian School in Latin America


On 28 July 2012, I participated in the Liberty Summer Seminar in Orono, Ontario. My presentation recapped some of my doctoral research on the history of the Austrian School of Economics in Latin America. Other speakers included: Pierre Desrochers (University of Toronto, Geography), John Tomasi (Brown University, Philosophy), and Jan Narveson (University of Waterloo, Philosophy).

Stress case


2012 March 12
Re: Biting into Apple
Colby Cosh claims that Chinese workers at Foxconn, a supplier to Apple Inc., “face conditions that wouldn’t be tolerated in the West” (“Biting into Apple,” Business, Feb. 13). The most damning evidence of this, according to Cosh, is that 14 Foxconn workers committed suicide in 2010. Yet some public institutions in Canada have reported suicide rates up to eight times higher than Foxconn, which has a workforce of approximately 800,000. Given 14 suicides in 2010, the suicide rate per 100,000 at Foxconn is 1.75. Queen’s University has a student population of 21,468; in the 2010-2011 academic year, there were six student deaths, three of which were confirmed suicides, making the suicide rate per 100,000 at Queen’s 13.97.
Critics who point to high stress levels at Foxconn would do well to remember that more than 50 per cent of students at post-secondary institutions in Ontario report extreme anxiety and more than seven per cent say they have seriously contemplated suicide. If suicide is the most damning indicator of an oppressive institutional environment, the data suggests we should be less outraged about the foreign factories where our iPods are made and more concerned about the public universities in which our children study.

Victoria L. Henderson
PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow, Queen’s University
(Link to the article that prompted this letter and a longer blog post on the same topic)


Publication Information:
Henderson, Victoria L. (2012) Stress case. Maclean’s: Canada’s National Magazine. 12 March. 125(9): 8.

Che on campus

2012 February 8
Re: Welcome to Che Guevara U
If Michael Ross is upset about a Che Guevara screensaver used on the University of Victoria’s Social Justice Studies Department’s website, one suspects he would be even more outraged by the poster of Ernesto Che Guevara used by Queen’s University to promote its Cuba study program a few years ago. The poster featured the classic Alberto Korda image of Guevara with the Queen’s University logo in place of the star on Guevara’s beret.
Ironically, some of the professors who wax poetic about the need to think critically are the ones who work to naturalize a romantic image of Guevara, whitewashing his past as a state executioner and a supporter of forced labour for political dissidents, homosexuals and others found to transgress revolutionary morals.

Victoria L. Henderson
PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow, Queen’s University
(Link to the article that prompted this letter)


Publication Information:
Henderson, Victoria L. (2012) Che on campus. National Post. 8 February, A15.

Featured Research

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  • 9000 slidetop true 50 bottom 30 http://www.victoriahenderson.com/blog/archives/1046
    INTERVIEW | Sun TV (2013), Contesting David Suzuki's Claims on Cuba
  • 9000 slidetop true 50 bottom 30 http://www.victoriahenderson.com/blog/archives/1049
    PANEL | Center for a Secure Free Society (2013), Iran and Latin America
  • 9000 slidetop true 50 bottom 30
    OP-ED | National Post (2013), Free Speech Battles Belong on Campus
  • 9000 slidetop true 50 bottom 30
    PANEL | Guelph University (2012), War On Drugs, War on Latin America

War on Drugs, War on Latin America


On 24 January 2012, I participated in a panel on drug policy organized by the Institute for Liberal Studies and the Political Science Department at Guelph University. In my presentation, ‘War on Drugs, War on Latin America,’ I argued that drug policy must be transnational in focus, moving beyond demand-side prohibition and harm reduction policies, both of which ignore the violence inflicted on individuals in supply and transit nations as a result of the war on drugs. Patricia Erickson (University of Toronto) argued for legal regulation; Margaret Kopala (Centre for Immigration Policy Reform) made the case for prohibition.

Chavez and Cuba’s new course

2011 November 16
Re: Adios, Fidel. Hola, Hugo. Cuba Charts New Course
Oakland Ross (“Adios, Fidel. Hola, Hugo. Cuba charts new course,” 12 November 2011) would have done well to note that Venezuela is expropriating private property faster than Cuba is experimenting with its introduction. If Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is, in fact, the new intellectual engineer of a post-Castro Cuba, then the claim that Cuba is charting a “new” course, bound by respect for private property and the rule of law, is dubious at best.

Victoria L. Henderson
PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow, Queen’s University
(Link to the article that prompted this letter)


Publication Information:
Henderson, Victoria L. (2011) Chavez and Cuba’s new course. Toronto Star. 16 November, A22.

Dismal missives

2011 October 17
Re: Economics Has Met the Enemy, and It Is Economics
Ira Basen refers to French students who demand a new economics to “deliver us from abstraction.” Few statements could be more dangerous.


Without abstraction, we could not make sense of the world. Abstraction allows us to understand that things appearing to our senses as similar can be categorically different, and that things appearing to us as different can be categorically alike.


The problem is when abstraction leads you to believe that you have a fundamentally different problem than what you actually have. As Ludwig von Mises long ago observed, the problem with neoclassical economic models is that they teach us how the world would be, if men were different from what they really are.


Victoria L. Henderson,
PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow, Queen’s University
(Link to the article that prompted this letter)


Publication Information:
Henderson, Victoria L. (2011) Dismal missives. The Globe and Mail. 17 October, A14.

The hypocrisy of Hugo Chavez

Sent to The Globe and Mail
11 October 2011


Your decision to run an article outlining Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s condemnation of the ‘horrible repression’ of Occupy Wall Street protestors (“Hugo Chavez condemns ‘horrible repression’ of Wall Street protests”, 8 October 2011) without so much as mentioning that the Chavez administration has been highly criticized by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights for excessive use of force against, and detention of, political opposition in Venezuela is completely unacceptable. Is the institutional memory of The Globe and Mail so poor that the paper has already forgotten the July 2011 story it ran on the Chavez administration’s decision to imprison Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, arrested in 2009 by Chavez’s “secret police” for having conditionally released a businessman whose detention (on charges of circumventing government currency controls) had exceeded Venezuela’s legal limits? If you need to refresh your memory, start by reviewing the position of the United Nations, which holds Chavez responsible for creating a climate of fear that undermines the rule of law and obstructs justice.

Victoria L. Henderson
PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow, Queen’s University
(Link to the article that prompted this letter)