From the Editor: Universities Must Differentiate Between Free Speech and Hate Speech
Columns / December 13, 2017
Wilfrid Laurier University was right to apologize to Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant who was chastised for showing her students a controversial video about using gender neutral pronouns in academic writing. The video demonstrated the thoughts and opinions of an outspoken advocate named Jordan Peterson who disagrees with using the gender neutral “they” as a singular pronoun.
The CBC covered this issue on Nov. 24 and posted the audio from the meeting held between university administration and Shepherd to discuss a complaint filed by a student about the video that was shown.
“Can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they are insulated from this? Is that what the point of this is? Because to me that is so against what a university is about,” she says through tears in the recording. “I was not taking sides. I was presenting both arguments.”
The university responded by saying that the arguments she presented were “counter to the Canadian human rights code,” calling her teaching method “discriminatory” and refusing to acknowledge that Shepherd simply intended to incite a debate by showing the video. She was not approached or criticized by any of the students in her class that day.
Presenting ideas that are hateful, unpopular, and unfounded but still held and promoted is crucial to developing individual ideas. If someone isn’t aware of what they disagree with, it becomes impossible to have a reasonably firm stance on current issues and events. Understanding that members of the LGBTQ community are harmed by dialogues such as those seen in the video allows those who are opposed to those dialogues to form their own opinions about what should be said instead and what they can do in response.
By keeping students in a bubble, where they aren’t exposed to shocking and potentially offensive ideas, post-secondary institutions are preventing them from growing personally and intellectually—the very aspect of university that makes it an exciting opportunity for self-improvement.
Shepherd’s argument is that, “in university, all perspectives are valid.” There is an obvious distinction between acknowledging an idea as existing and acting as a proponent of an idea, and Wilfrid Laurier University’s claim that starting a conversation about pronoun usage is “gender violence” is offensive to the individuals genuinely suffering from gender violence—those being physically, emotionally, and psychologically harmed by bigots who either intentionally discriminate against them or unintentionally inflict damage without being self-critical.
Fortunately, many members of the public have spoken in defense of Shepherd’s methods. Since the audio from the meeting was released and the media began covering the development of the problem, Wilfred Laurier University has apologized to Shepherd multiple times. However, she believes that the apology is not genuine and was made purely because the institution was being pressured to do so. A task force and third-party investigation has also been launched to address why Shepherd was treated unfairly and what the university ought to do in similar situations in the future.
This is all well and good, and perhaps it will make a difference to how WLU deals with student complaints, but this kind of thing will likely continue to happen around the country as a result of the too-extreme ideologies on social justice that have become increasingly prevalent over the years.
The response to this is simple: a distinction must be made between free speech and hate speech, especially in schools.
The place of a university in protecting students is to ensure that professors are not genuinely harassing, assaulting, threatening, or mistreating them. A professor standing in front of a room of people and telling them that using gender neutral pronouns is wrong and must be prohibited in class would be hate speech, but what Shepherd did was create an opportunity for a balanced conversation. She had a right to know about the complaint, but not to be blindly belittled and reprimanded by her superiors under the guise of fighting discrimination.