Friday December 01, 2017

Where's the line between free expression and protecting students from hate speech?

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has made headlines for stating he would not use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty on the grounds of free speech.

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has made headlines for stating he would not use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty on the grounds of free speech. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Listen 24:30

Read Story Transcript

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.

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.

Laurier Univ. teaching assistant sanction dispute5:51

'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."

UBC Sauder School of Business Prof. Jennifer Berdahl

Professor Jennifer Berdahl thinks difficult conversations should be held in a university context, under the appropriate guidance. (CBC)

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. 

Reading List - Rinaldo Walcott

U of T professor Rinaldo Walcott (Rinaldo Walcott/Insomniac Press)

"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.