Free speech on campus: Where should universities draw the line?

After a tumultuous year, Wilfrid Laurier University reckons with what some see as an intrusion of ‘unpopular opinions.’

Wilfrid Laurier University reckons with what some see as an intrusion of ‘unpopular opinions’

Faith Goldy speaks to a crowd after her talk in March on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus was called off because someone pulled the fire alarm. (Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press)
Listen21:33

Professor Steve Wilcox is at odds with his own university.

He believes that campuses may once have been places for the free exchange of ideas, no matter how controversial. But now, the internet is full of "controversial" opinions.

Some of these opinions are championed by outspoken personalities like author and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson and former Rebel Media reporter Faith Goldy.

Wilfrid Laurier University, where Wilcox teaches in the Game Design and Development program, has produced a guiding document on "free speech" on campus. The "statement on freedom of expression" argues that anything short of hate speech is fair game for on-campus talks. Wilcox things it's more complicated than that. 

'Better speech'

After rounds of drafts and consultations, Laurier's senate approved the school's free-speech document at the end of May. The university's vice-president of research, Robert Gordon, chaired the task force responsible for the statement. 

Laurier professor Steve Wilcox believes not all ideas deserve the legitimacy that comes with a university setting. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Gordon said the final product supports not just free speech, but "better speech."

"My desire, or certainly my hope in the future, is if somebody with the views like Faith Goldy was to come to our campus, that the 'better speech' would be through a really well thought-out and coordinated debate," said Gordon. "So, finding ways of actually elevating the academic quality of these free-expression opportunities."

"That being said," he added, "there will be times at which that won't be fully addressed, but we still support the opportunity for those views and opinions to be heard."

​Wilcox doesn't believe the school can have it both ways.

"If you felt intimidated or threatened to speak out based on the colour of your skin, then you are less likely to express your ideas," he said.

"Freedom of expression compels us to establish and uphold an anti-racist culture on campus, and that means declining to host speakers like Faith Goldy."

Goldy is known for opposing Canada's immigration policies. Her critics have called her views racist. 

Wilcox cited a video from December in which she recited a 14-word slogan associated with white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

'Not an easy issue'

The guiding document is a response to a series of incidents that has led to a $3.6-million lawsuit from former teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd. 

Shepherd was disciplined last fall for showing a TVOntario clip in which Jordan Peterson argued against the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Shepherd secretly recorded her disciplinary meeting with faculty, and then released it to media. Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy issued an apology soon after.

That event raised a question on the minds of many post-secondary students and staff: Are all ideas fit for exploration in a university or college setting? If not, which ideas should be off the table?

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

"It's not an easy issue," Wilcox acknowledges. "It's very difficult to suggest that we could somehow form a policy or a group of people who could adjudicate over what ideas are fit to discuss on campus and which ones are not.

"But at the same time, the university has said that they're committed to diversity and equity. And I think that, at a certain point ... their responsibility to creating a campus that embraces diversity and equity means saying 'no' to certain speakers in very rare instances."

Wilcox had a particular speaker in mind in making those comments. He published an open letter in March to oppose a campus visit from right-wing media personality Faith Goldy. 

"By hosting this speaker ... we must ask ourselves what the consequences are," Wilcox wrote. "What message are we sending to students of colour when we host a speaker who denies, diminishes, or denigrates their humanity?"

Unpopular, or unacceptable?

Faith Goldy had been invited by the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry, a group Shepherd helped create in the wake of her dispute with faculty. She was to be the first in the Society's "Unpopular Opinions Speaker Series."

Protesters gathered on the day of the talk. But Goldy's lecture never happened. Someone pulled the fire alarm just as it was getting underway. 

Wilcox, who teaches on Laurier's satellite campus in Brantford, Ont., wasn't there the night of the talk. But he was concerned by the outcome.

"Part of it felt like this was just going to make things worse, because of the way it had been framed, that these voices were being silenced," he said of provocative conservative speakers who feel they've been excluded from certain spaces and websites for their views.

Shepherd wrote a piece for Maclean's magazine after the event in which she argued that "campus activists silenced a much-needed discussion."

The Laurier Society for Open Inquiry scheduled another event that was to include Goldy, this time at the neighbouring University of Waterloo. It was ultimately cancelled over an estimate that security for the event would cost the organizers $28,500.

As for why the group might move from one campus to another, Wilcox argued that the alt-right are "particularly interested in university and college campuses."

"Whenever you speak on a university campus, it legitimizes both the speaker and the topic," he said. "It suggests that there's merit, even a degree of scholarly merit, that's involved with what's being presented."

Speaking to Out in the Open, Goldy contended that her points of view are supported by credible evidence, despite Wilcox's assertion otherwise.

"The terms that folks like professor Wilcox and others in the mainstream media, some of your colleagues included, use to describe me — terms like white supremacist, neo-Nazi, racist — these are all just terms of oppression," she said. "And they're terms used to denote that I'm a heretic against the conventional wisdom of today."

Goldy added: "As for free speech on campuses, it's dead and gone, and I don't know if we're ever going to get it back in this country."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Done and Done."