McMaster president calls for commitment to academic freedom after derailed debate

One person could face charges after Jordan Peterson's appearance at McMaster University last Friday. The debate turned into a shouting match as protestors tried to prevent him from speaking.

Patrick Deane argues for free speech on campus, but also the right to peaceful protest

A cellphone video captured by fourth year student Ali Yazdankia has been widely viewed on Facebook. It shows the second leg of Peterson's talk, when he was outside, speaking both to and over the crowd surrounding him. (Ali Yazdankia/Facebook)

McMaster University president Patrick Deane has published a defence of the university's handling of a Friday debate over free speech and political correctness that was derailed by protesters.

But Deane's open letter to the McMaster community also said the "extremely regrettable" incident did not meet the standards of open debate —alongside peaceful protest —the university should foster and aspire to.

Fallout from the cancelled debate continues to be felt on campus, as the university also says it is investigating an allegation of assault as part of the protest that prevented Dr. Jordan Peterson from speaking to a crowd last Friday at McMaster University.

The debate, which was to include three professors to counter Peterson, quickly turned into a shouting match as Peterson struggled to be heard over clanging cowbells, blowing air horns and chanting protestors. Eventually, Peterson retreated outside the hall, where he continued speaking while standing on a bench.

Taking the opportunity to listen to a speaker, even one with whom one may vehemently disagree, is an important aspect of education.- Patrick Deane, McMaster President

One individual was seen blowing an air horn very close to Peterson's ear. Another person reportedly threw glitter on Peterson's face and suit.

Peterson was making an appearance for what was supposed to be an academic debate about freedom of speech and political correctness, especially in academic settings. Peterson objects to the use of gender-less pronouns and laws that would require him to use them.

In his open letter to the McMaster community, Deane, defends the need for open debate on controversial topics on campus. But he says, while the university supports the right to free speech, the right for people to peacefully protest is equally as important.

Opportunity to listen

"Taking the opportunity to listen to a speaker, even one with whom one may vehemently disagree, is an important aspect of education and a cornerstone of academic debate. It has not, therefore, been my approach, nor that of this University, to intervene to shut down events, exclude speakers, or prevent discussion of issues, even where controversial topics are under discussion."

The university's president said the university received numerous calls from both sides prior to the event: some demanding the university shut it down, others demanding the university block the protesters from disrupting it. He decided the best course of action was to let the debate proceed as scheduled. He wrote that, except for "extreme circumstances" the university would not be excluding individuals or canceling events. Protests need to be within the laws and university codes of conduct.

Deane also affirmed the university's commitment to supporting diverse communities and to the rights of minorities. 

"As such, the presence on campus of a speaker who may challenge the rights of any particular group should not be seen as undermining the University's commitment to inclusivity, but merely as an opportunity to explore and debate the topics under discussion."

McMaster University president Patrick Deane's second term will stretch from June 2015 to June 2020. (Courtesy of McMaster University)

In reply, Dr. Mark Mercer, president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, an organization that says it is dedicated to the defence of academic freedom and respectful debate, called Dr. Deane's response "gravely concerning."

"By conferring a de facto hecklers' veto, this is an open invitation to protestors to shut down events through obstreperous behavior."

"Academic freedom becomes meaningless if protestors are invited to silence whichever speaker or shut down whatever events they chose. A president's defense of academic freedom has to consist of more than reciting abstract words; it must include taking action to remove those who prevent peaceful discussion from taking place."

Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. (jordanbpeterson.com)

Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, came into the spotlight last year when he spoke out publicly against what he calls "compelled speech." Peterson told CBC News in a radio interview he does not recognize another person's right to determine what pronouns he uses to address them.

'We never got to have a discussion on freedom of speech'

Hadhy Ayaz, a third year global health student, is the director of political action for the student group called Overcome the Gap. Ayaz said the group decided to organize the debate because they say the issue is relevant to McMaster students and the debate was planned well before the group knew of Dr. Peterson.

It's turning Peterson into a free-speech martyr, which I don't think he deserves.- Dr. Philippa Carter, McMaster professor

In the wake of Friday's protests, Ayaz says Overcome the Gap will be speaking with Deane this week to discuss ways to move forward, including the possibility of organizing another discussion.

"We feel like we never got to have the event we wanted to have, we never got to have a discussion on freedom of speech."

"We want to work with the presidents office to organize a follow-up event, maybe have him on the panel with various McMaster profs and speakers from other institutions to see if we can get a dialogue going," Ayaz said.

"We're hoping this can lead to some positive action on the part of the presidents office."

'Besmirched the reputation of the university'

Dr. Liyakat Takim and Dr. Mathew Grellete of McMaster University decided to back out of the debate. Ayaz said the professors mentioned receiving critical e-mails, which he says might have discouraged their participation.

Dr. Philippa Carter, a professor of religious studies at the university, was to be the third panelist from McMaster. Carter called the entire situation upsetting, saying the incident has damaged McMaster.

"It's besmirched the reputation of the university, that's what bothers me about it. It's turning Peterson into a free-speech martyr, which I don't think he deserves."

Dr. Carter said McMaster faculty is not organizing any kind of action or statement as of right now. However, Ayaz said he hopes to see more faculty members take an active role by joining in the discussion.

Gord Arbeau, director of communications for McMaster University told CBC News the university continues its investigation into an alleged assault. Arbeau said the individual being investigated is not affiliated with McMaster.

McMaster security officers have the ability to investigate, make arrests and lay charges if necessary. Arbeau declined to comment whether Hamilton Police Service will be involved in the investigation.