Friday December 01, 2017
Where's the line between free expression and protecting students from hate speech?
Controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson was featured on TVO last year speaking out against the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
When Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, played some of that program to her class, university administrators summoned her into a meeting, and accused her of creating a toxic environment for her students.
- CBC News: Why Wilfrid Laurier University's president apologized to Lindsay Shepherd
- As It Happens: Toronto university professor says controversial website 'on hiatus'
The university has since apologized to Shepherd, but her case has raised questions about the balance between protecting freedom of speech and minority rights in the classroom.
'I think pretty much any topic is on the table, but it needs to be done in a very responsible way — based on expertise.' - Jennifer Berdahl
Jennifer Berdahl, professor of leadership studies at the University of British Columbia, says universities should hold meaningful discussions — but with appropriate guidance.
"I think that we are witnessing a situation in which a TA (teaching assistant), who was not an expert in an area, opened up the classroom to that topic and was not prepared to critically analyze and help students identify their underlying assumptions."
"I think pretty much any topic is on the table, but it needs to be done in a very responsible way — based on expertise."
Ken Coates, Canada research chair in regional innovation, agrees that with exception of outright hate speech — which is in violation of Canadian law — all ideas should be up for debate in the university context.
"That's what we need universities to do … Going back over the last 40 years, you see massive and important transitions that have occurred in large part because of the bravery and courage of people standing up and having these kind of conversations."
'If you practice a pedagogy that is about both one of questioning and searching — but also one of valuing human life — you don't have these kinds of problems.' - Rinaldo Walcott
But Rinaldo Walcott, director of women and gender studies institute at The University of Toronto, stresses attention must be paid to power imbalances and triggering language in the classroom.
"Some of us are able to say with really strong evidence that there are some forms of speech that are intolerable — that words actually do hurt and do harm," he tells The Current.
Like Berdahl and Coates, Walcott maintains it is how educators approach their teaching, not the material in question, that makes the difference.
"If you practise a pedagogy that is about both one of questioning and searching — but also one of valuing human life — you don't have these kinds of problems."
Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.
This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and WIllow Smith.