COMMENTARY: Laurier University incident demonstrates defence of certain kinds of speech
By now you’ve probably heard of Wilfrid Laurier University’s handling of the incident involving Lindsay Shepherd, the 22-year-old TA who aired a clip of TVO’s The Agenda featuring a discussion on the use of correct pronouns for those who are non-binary or transgender.
The president of WLU has since apologized to Shepherd for the university’s reaction, which among other issues, completely misstated the application of Bill C-16, the piece of legislation that added gender identity and expression to Canada’s hate crime laws.
In essence, the professors who were disciplining Shepherd were misapplying the law in the very same way that the alt-right and even some mainstream conservatives have been framing the debate, asserting that the addition of gender identity and expression would lead to the criminalization of everyday speech. This is untrue, and it remains just as untrue whether the argument is coming from someone on the left or from someone who makes $50,000 a month by making reactionary YouTube videos.
It’s clear that WLU should have handled the situation better, and Shepherd should have arguably benefited from the notion of academic freedom, even as a teaching assistant.
University of Waterloo political science Prof. Emmett Macfarlane put it to me this way in an email, “Part of the purpose of academic freedom is to permit anyone in a teaching capacity discretion in terms of topics explored, pedagogy, and managing class discussions. It’s not unlimited: even tenured professors are expected to remain in the neighbourhood of what the course is about, for example. And TAs can receive instructions for the course instructor about what to address, and even how. But absent those constraints, everyone doing teaching at a university should be protected by academic freedom.”
But the reaction to the reaction wasn’t the way it was because all of a sudden people are particularly vested in academic freedom and what a bunch of eggheads are doing at a university. It’s because freedom of expression and speech tend to be hot-button issues for many and get amplified by the ease in which they’re carried on any media outlet. It makes for a straightforward call-in segment for talk radio, it’s an effortless column for any competent columnist to write, and it provides endless fodder on social media.
With so many people coming to the defense of Lindsay Sheppard, including official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer who raised the issue in the House of Commons, one would think that the Canadian media and political class are a bastion of free speech defenders. Of course, that’s simply not the case. What we’re seeing once again is the defence of selective speech. People will defend speech that they already agree with, or speech that advances an ideological viewpoint akin to one they already hold.
This isn’t an abstract thought exercise either, as just last month there was an issue of free speech at Dalhousie University, and there was nary a mention from the very same people who are getting worked up over Shepherd and WLU.
Masuma Khan is the vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union. In a Facebook post that has since been deleted, she defended her successful motion for the student union’s boycott of Canada Day celebrations on campus, saying among other things, “White fragility can kiss my ass.” This prompted a graduate student, Michael Smith, to pen an op-ed in the National Post, and lodge a formal complaint with the university saying that Khan was being discriminatory against white people. The reaction from Dalhousie was swift, who moved to formally discipline Khan while the death threats, and racist messages to Khan started piling up.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Khan, who is a student, was writing on her own personal social media account, and was being investigated and censured by the university because another student did not agree with the content of the social media post.
After several faculty members came to the defense of Khan, Dalhousie ended up walking back their overreaction, but where was the outrage from all these free speech defenders that we’re hearing from now regarding Ms. Shepherd and WLU?
WATCH: Dalhousie student receives threats, national support in Canada 150 dispute with university
Macfarlane noted in his email to me how similar the two situations were.
“I think the Masuma Khan incident was definitely comparable,” Macfarlane wrote. “It was part of a culture of university administration that instinctively tries to engage in damage control when a member of the university community has been offended by someone’s speech, and unfortunately that damage control takes the form of bureaucratic suppression of speech through ‘investigations,’ tribunals of inquiry and informal sanctions.”
How many columnists who love to jump on the campus snowflake beat came to the defense of Masuma Khan at Dalhousie? How many hours of talk radio were devoted to the notion of Khan’s right to free speech being a key pillar of our democracy? How many statements of support did Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer provide?
WATCH: Dalhousie University drops complaint against student for criticizing ‘white fragility’
Scheer’s selective outrage is particularly egregious here since he literally campaigned on the issue of free speech on campuses. Khan’s troubles should have brought about the same concern for him as Shepherd’s. Yet Shepherd’s case not only fits into Scheer’s narrative with ease – political correctness gone awry – the issue at hand literally advances Scheer’s political agenda since he voted against Bill C-16.
You either believe in free speech or you don’t. If Scheer and those in the media currently getting themselves into a lather can’t stand up for speech that they find disagreeable, then they might not be the free speech warriors they claim to be.
© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.