Justice Centre submits recommendations to Wilfrid Laurier University Task Force on Freedom of Expression

The Justice Centre has submitted its recommendations to the Wilfrid Laurier University (“Laurier”) Task Force on Freedom of Expression, to assist the Task Force in developing a thorough, principled statement on freedom of expression.

In November 2017, Laurier President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy announced the formation of a task force, the mandate of which is “to develop a statement on freedom of expression…guided by the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.” The Task Force will produce an open report recommending a statement on freedom of expression and will present the report to Laurier’s Senate for final approval.

The decision to launch the Task Force follows the now infamous incident involving Laurier graduate student and teaching assistant, Lindsay Shepherd. Ms. Shepherd showed a short clip to her Communication Studies class of Professor Jordan Peterson speaking during a televised debate regarding the use of alternative pronouns. She was then interrogated by Laurier professors, Nathan Rambukkana and Herbert Pimlott and a staff member of Laurier’s “Gendered Violence Prevention and Support” office, who told her that showing the clip was “problematic”; had made some students feel “unsafe”, and that alternative pronouns were “not up for debate”.

The Justice Centre’s submission focuses on the question of where to draw the line to ensure the unfettered right to dialogue is protected. In its submission, the Justice Centre explains that the line should be drawn at hate speech as defined by the Criminal Code of Canada. It notes that this should not be confused with what a person might subjectively perceive as “hateful” because that person feels hurt or offended by a particular opinion, or because that person disagrees with a certain viewpoint. “The clarity provided by an objective standard of what constitutes prohibited speech will allow individuals to fully express themselves and will preserve the mission and purpose of the university,” explains the Justice Centre’s submission.

The Justice Centre’s submission includes a Template Resolution in Support of Free Expression that can be incorporated into Laurier’s statement. This Template was developed based on the Justice Centre’s uniquely qualified understanding of the policy framework supporting free expression at Canadian universities. Since 2011, the Justice Centre has analyzed these policies annually through its Campus Freedom Index, which measures the state of free speech on campus by looking at the policies and practices of 60 Canadian public universities.

The Justice Centre’s submission to the Task Force concludes:

“Canadian universities must stop merely paying lip service to freedom of expression, treating it as an aspiration or ideal that cannot be attained. Freedom of expression is a core component of intellectual inquiry and the basis for academic freedom. There should be no greater celebration of, and protection for, freedom of expression, including the expression of minority viewpoints, than at institutions of higher learning. Permitting the censorship of unpopular ideas and beliefs on campus deprives students of the right to hear diverse expression, which necessarily includes minority opinions and ideas that the majority disapproves of.”