Free speech and pronouns

When Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, hit play on an excerpt from Steve Paikin’s TVO program, The Agenda, during a seminar for her first-year communications students a few weeks ago, she had no idea of the free speech and academic freedom storm that was about to hit.

The excerpt from the 2016 program was a discussion about the use of non-gendered pronouns, and Shepherd showed it to demonstrate to her students how controversial the politics of this are.

Controversial ideas or toxic environment?

Indeed, they are, as she soon learned, when a complaint was made about her use of this particular video, because one of the perspectives presented was that of now-infamous University of Toronto Jordan Peterson, who has refused to use the pronouns that some trans students in his classes have requested.

Shepherd was summoned to a meeting with senior university administrators, during which she was castigated for having used the video. Among other criticisms levelled at her, she was told she had created a toxic atmosphere and may have broken federal laws (which she did not).

She did not take this criticism lying down. She secretly recorded the meeting, in which she said:

“I don’t see how someone would rationally think it was threatening. I could see how it might challenge their existing ideas, but for me that’s the spirit of the university, challenging the ideas that you already have. The thing is, can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure they are insulated away from this? Because to me that is so against what a university is about.”

Launching a media debate

Shepherd released the entire audio recording of the meeting to the media and thus launched a public debate about how the university had handled an issue of free speech/academic freedom.

Wilfrid Laurier president and vice-chancellor Deborah MacLatchy has now issued an apology, in which she states her regret for how the university handled the complaints and the impact on Shepherd, claiming that this is not a reflection of the university’s values and practices.

Free speech and safety can co-exist

As I wrote in a September post, freedom of speech is a right that carries with it responsibilities. There is a big difference between hate speech, which is against the law in Canada, and speech that explores topics and perspectives that are controversial and may make some people uncomfortable.

Melanie Randall, an associate professor in law at Western University, put it like this in a Globe and Mail opinion piece:

“The debates about the limits of free speech have become divisive, fractious and polarized. The “no platforming” of viewpoints considered noxious, the mistaken belief that airing controversies must be stopped because it is equivalent to creating a “toxic environment” and the terrible twisted distortion of legitimate feminist ideas about the need for safety – which have degenerated into absurd claims that safety requires silencing speech that some find threatening – have taken us into some strange and troubling terrain, particularly on university campuses. Safety does not require the muzzling of dissenting ideas, most especially not in institutions of higher learning.”

It seems to me that if any toxicity has been created at WLU, it was not by Lindsay Shepherd’s use of the TVO video but by the university’s response to what she did.

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