ANALYSIS: Despite about-face, Laurier needs schooling on fundamentals of free speech

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University, was accused by the school of violating their policies of trans-phobia for playing a TVO segment featuring featuring polarizing University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. Global News

It’s supposed to be a sunny day this Friday in Waterloo — perfect weather to shine a light on a university that seems to have lost its way.

Wilfrid Laurier University has been at the centre of a sometimes nasty debate over free speech. It didn’t want to be there and tried its best to ignore it,  but it seems the administration messed with the wrong teaching assistant.

That would be Lindsey Shepherd, who, on Nov. 1st, decided the best way to teach her critical thinking class about the ongoing debate over gender pronouns was to play a short clip from a TVO debate featuring the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson, who has veered more towards provocateur than professor. He has been proclaiming long and hard that he will only use the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’, which has made him the darling of the alt-right. The transgender community thinks otherwise. So that’s the debate.

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Shepherd’s big mistake is that she failed to realize that debating sensitive topics can land you in hot water at Laurier.

It was only a week after playing the video clip to her class that she learned one or more (we don’t know how many) of her 48 students had complained to the university. She was called into a meeting with three faculty members. They bullied her, accused her of breaking the law and suggested she was transphobic.

And if she hadn’t recorded the entire thing, nobody would have believed it happened. In fact, the university acknowledged in its apology that listening to the tape led to its about-face. A recording the university apparently first discovered after Global News uploaded a portion of the secretly recorded meeting to the internet.

COMMENTARY: Laurier’s apology not enough

But here’s the thing: When the National Post first wrote about Shepherd’s plight, it was clear they pulled quotes from a recording of her dressing-down. So did Laurier’s administration call Shepherd to get a copy? To ask her how she was doing? Laurier is, after all, her employer and it’s HR 101 that you talk to the alleged victim. But, according to Shepherd, this never happened. It took public shaming — and it was extreme — as well as the prospect of alumni donations drying up for them to say sorry.

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“They knew there was a recording for about a week because there was first a written article about it saying I recorded it,” Shepherd said in an interview Tuesday. “The university never asked me for the recording. They didn’t care.

“It’s pretty sad, that to be taken serious, as a grad student, I had to secretly, covertly record these people. They wouldn’t take my word for it.”

But there’s a problem for Laurier when it says it is seriously examining the many issues raised by this incident — they’ve been down this road before.


One recent example: in March, Danielle Robitaille was asked to make a keynote speech on campus. Not long after, it was announced it was canceled. You see, Robitaille was one of Jian Ghomeshi’s lawyers and a group of students calling themselves Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent argued that Robitaille’s mere presence could be traumatizing for anyone sensitive to the issue of sexual violence.

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‘The whole concept of a university is a bulwark of free speech where students are supposed to engage and develop critical thinking faculties. So to suppress it based on some misguided notion of political correctness is just such patent nonsense,” said labour and employment lawyer Howard Levitt.

‘If it was illegal to show both sides of an argument on a university campus, then we wouldn’t call this Canada. We’d call this Maoist China at its most extreme.”

So that leads us back to this Friday when another group of students plans to hold a rally for free speech. Shepherd will be speaking, as will a small group of professors who are outraged and embarrassed it’s come to this. Maybe someone should invite the administration?

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