U of Windsor's free speech policy addresses potential harm to others — not 'upset' students

In August, the provincial government warned Ontario colleges and universities to come up with free speech policies by Jan. 1, 2019 or face funding cuts.

Ideas shouldn't be censored because some may find them offensive, says professor

The University of Windsor's updated free speech policy says ideas should not be censored because students fear 'some members of the community may find them persuasive or that others may find them offensive.' (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

The University of Windsor framed its updated free speech policy on the basis that rules enforcing what people can and can't say varies across different parts of the school's campus.

"In the classroom, there are a range of different rules about how conversation occurs ... that are different from a public protest in the open spaces of campus," said law professor Richard Moon who wrote the school's free speech policy.

In August, the provincial government issued a warning to colleges and universities in Ontario that they must come up with free speech policies by Jan. 1, 2019 or face funding cuts. The University of Windsor's updated "freedom of expression" policy was approved by the school's board of governors on Nov. 27, 2018.

"What our courts have said is that for something to be hate speech, it has to be extreme in character and has to amount to the vilification of the members of a group defined on the basis of race, religion, gender and so forth," said Moon.

"So we're talking about speech that is so extreme that if you were to take its message seriously, you would have to conclude that some kind of radical action was necessary to take against the members of particular group."

Students protest against a talk by Faith Goldy on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus in Waterloo, Ont., on March 20, 2018. (Hannah Yoon/Canadian Press)

He said issues relating to freedom of expression are far and few at the University of Windsor. According to Moon, the number of complaints have remained "no more frequent than they would have been 20 years ago."

"I think the provincial government was really aiming to present itself as stepping in to discipline universities and 'snowflake students' and so forth when there really wasn't an issue or problem at all — and universities were entirely capable of addressing these problems.

Moon isn't ignoring free speech rallies which have garnered national attention. One example he pointed to is Wilfrid Laurier University, which made international headlines last winter, when teaching assistant Lindsey Shepherd was criticized by three Laurier staff members for failing to condemn the views of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who refused to use gender-neutral pronouns.

He said incidents like this were given "a lot of publicity" which made it seem like conflicts relating to free speech are more frequent across Canadian campuses than they actually are.

U of Windsor not policing 'the subjective experience of upset'

"When people talk about offence, that's not actually part of what the law restricts nor what should be restricted on campus. It's not the subjective experience of upset," said Moon.

The University of Windsor's updated free speech policy says ideas should not be censored "simply because we think they are mistaken and fear that some members of the community may find them persuasive or that others may find them offensive."

It adds that University of Windsor students' commitment to freedom of expression means protecting speech for reasons beyond their subjective agreement with the message.

Moon's research focuses on 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom of conscience and religion.' (University of Windsor)

"We're talking about something that we want to call a harm or injury — that I may feel threatened, that I may feel vulnerable, that I may feel undermined in my standing within the community such that other members of the community might think that I need to be excluded or even violently suppressed."

He added, in instances where students may question their peers' comments, they should ask themselves, "Is there harm here?" — rather than, "Are some people offended?"

Enforcing the policy

Moon said University of Windsor administration has developed "some kind of process" to determine how the school's free speech policy is implemented and monitored.

He added, in instances when students want to protest a speaker coming to campus, it's important for students to point the finger at the people who invited them to campus — and not the speaker themselves.

When people talk about offence, that's not actually part of what the law restricts nor what should be restricted on campus. It's not the subjective experience of upset.- University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon

"It's entirely acceptable for protestors to argue that somebody shouldn't have been invited to campus to speak, because not everybody gets to come on the campus and speak. If somebody is a bigot or whatever, it may well be understood that it was inappropriate that they were asked to speak."

"But I don't get to physically interfere and prevent the event from occurring."

with files from Tony Doucette and CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

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