It is tempting to view Wilfrid Laurier University's apology to Lindsay Shepherd, the TA who was hauled before an informal tribunal to account for presenting a class with a controversial viewpoint on pronoun use in relation to trans people, as a victory for academic freedom or freedom of expression.

After all, the backlash was overwhelming; even international media picked up on the incident, which saw two professors and a staff member clumsily excoriate Shepherd for having the gall to introduce a sensitive topic by "neutrally" showing a video clip that included the infamous Jordan Peterson, the Toronto professor at the centre of the pronoun debate.

How could the response from the public not indicate the value we place on free expression and the dissection of controversial issues on university campuses?

Recording of the meeting

One of the problems is that if Shepherd had not recorded the incident, had the comments she endured not been exposed for the utterly ridiculous notions they are – including the idea that talking about rights is akin to transphobia or violence, or that introducing the topic is contrary to the "Canadian Human Rights Code" (it is, in fact, an act not a code, it does not apply to universities, and even if it did what the TA did comes nowhere close to violating it) – the university may not have been so easily cowed.

A more fundamental problem is that much of the backlash was not, in fact, about defending Shepherd's academic freedom or freedom of expression. Many of the academics who spoke out were appalled at how the university reacted, not the fact that introducing a controversial issue in a class was perceived as a problem in the first place. 

For example, some argued this whole incident was really a problem of TA training or graduate supervision, which implies, incorrectly, that Shepherd did something wrong. There was a strong undercurrent, even as people expressed disdain for how Laurier handled the situation, that having offended at least one student, a problem existed, and the university simply bungled its response.

Lindsay Shepherd Laurier teaching assistant sanctioned

Some argued this whole incident was really a problem of TA training, which implies, incorrectly, that Shepherd did something wrong. (Twitter)

This reflects a broader issue that is relevant to the academic context and beyond. Many people have been sadly unwilling to speak out about recent cases where academic freedom or free expression have been violated — from the cancelling of speaking events to the "resignation" of Andrew Potter as the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, to this most recent case — precisely because they did not like what was said or what was going to be said.

There is also a pervasive sense that free speech is now contrary to equality and the dignity of minority peoples, and so free expression must be limited, even (or especially) at universities in order to prevent marginalized people from harm. But pitting these values in competition is misguided. Even in the case of Peterson, who has vowed not to use the preferred nonbinary pronouns of trans students, there are a set of fundamentally important issues with which society and policymakers need to grapple.

Among them: what role should the state play in combating discrimination? What policies or laws should be in place to prevent certain forms of speech, or to compel speech, in order to ensure equality? Who gets to draw those lines?

However bizarre and abhorrent Peterson's views are about treating trans people with basic respect (and I personally find his objections to using preferred pronouns ridiculous), these are vital questions raised directly by his objections, and they implicate all sorts of rights and governance issues. And introducing students to these ideas, even in a "neutral" manner, is perfectly appropriate from both a moral and a pedagogical perspective.

The view that people need to be protected from harm caused by free debate and discussion is pervasive, far more pervasive than the handful of highly visible free speech controversies might suggest. Yet because a particular set of far-right-wing commentators and anti-"political correctness" advocates have seized on free speech as one of their primary calls to action — and because many of the campus controversies involves heroes of the alt-right, like Peterson, it has literally become uncomfortable for some to defend free expression.

Masuma Khan

Dalhousie University student Masuma Khan was threatened with an investigation for writing an anti-colonial post where she also made salty comments about white fragility. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)


But a recent case at Dalhousie University is illustrative of why the refusal by many to defend speech they personally find abhorrent is such a problem. A student, Masuma Khan, was threatened with an investigation for writing an anti-colonial post where she also made some salty comments about white fragility.

The university, having received complaints about her alleged discrimination against white people, dove headfirst into the now predictable PR-tinged, litigation-averse, "someone is offended so we must act" response. After a public outcry – including statements from faculty in Khan's defence – the university backed down. 

Hypocrisy on both sides

Few of the faculty who rose to Khan's defence have been outspoken in cases where the speech at issue falls on the other side of the ideological spectrum (many of the usual free speech champions were oddly silent too – hypocrisy on both sides).

But Khan's case demonstrates precisely why everyone who values their own speech should speak out to defend speech they do not like. By remaining silent, you tacitly support a university administrative culture that fails to protect academic freedom or freedom of expression. 

That makes it all the more likely that you will eventually find yourself — or your ideological kin — on the wrong end of a system run amok.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.