The Ontario Government announced yesterday that publicly-funded colleges and universities province-wide will have until January 1, 2019 to develop and institute pro-free speech policies on their campuses. The news release states that “Colleges and universities that do not comply with the free speech requirements may be subject to a reduction in operating grant funding.”
The free speech debate is an issue that occupies a special place in my life. Last fall, in my role as Teaching Assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), I was hauled into a disciplinary meeting for showing a clip of The Agenda with Steve Paikin that featured professors Jordan Peterson and Nicholas Matte discussing gender-neutral pronouns. I secretly recorded the disciplinary meeting and sent the audio file to various national media outlets. After a third-party fact-finding investigation was conducted at WLU, I was exonerated – found to have done absolutely nothing wrong – and I also received a public apology from the university’s president, Deborah MacLatchy.
However, there was fallout after I received the apology. WLU’s LGBTQ resource centre, the Rainbow Centre, put up posters around the campus that read “Trans Students Deserve an Apology” and “What Happened to Laurier’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy?”, referring to the fact that conducting a neutral and balanced discussion about gender-neutral pronouns in the classroom does indeed violate the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. To not blindly abide by the use of gender-neutral pronouns is to commit “transphobia” and “gendered violence.”
The Rainbow Centre had a sign in their window that read “Trans Students Deserve an Apology” until the school year had concluded. And in an op-ed entitled “It’s trans students and staff who deserve an apology from Wilfred [sic] Laurier University”, a staff member from the Laurier Students’ Public Interest Research Group wrote that “we need to acknowledge that debates that invalidate the existence of trans and non-binary people or dehumanize us based on gender are both a form of transphobia and gendered violence.”
For radical activists, it’s about power and revenge
When the trans students did not receive an institutional apology, they presumably decided to find another route to sabotage the win for free inquiry. The route they decided to take was using the university’s internal dispute system: in May, I received notice that a transgender activist affiliated with the Rainbow Centre had launched a formal complaint against me under WLU policy 6.1 – Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. The transgender activist said mediation was absolutely not an option, he wanted me to be investigated right away. Of course: for the radical activists, it’s not about mediation and trying to work out issues – it’s about power and revenge. This activist had previously bragged at an on-campus rally that the transgender students had power, claiming “you can see the fear in Deborah MacLatchy’s eyes…and she should be scared!”
How will campus free speech policies that aim to promote “open debate” and “the exchange of ideas” address overreaching Gendered Violence policies and power-hungry activists that manipulate the internal complaints system? At this point, they can’t. While the various free speech policies that will come into effect in Ontario on January 1, 2019 may encourage some students to speak their minds in class more often and offer their honest opinions, that doesn’t mean they won’t be notified of a formal complaint against them the next week.
University free speech policies try to appeal to both sides
At the risk of sounding cynical, university free speech policies are meaningless. They try to appeal to both sides – the side advocating for more restrictions on campus speech, and the side advocating for less restrictions. At WLU, a Task Force on Freedom of Expression drafted and eventually passed a Statement on Freedom of Expression that did exactly what I expected, and appealed to both sides.
It did this by championing the idea of “inclusive freedom” – scholar Sigal Ben-Porath’s notion that free speech should be vigorously defended, but all voices at the table must be equally included. Yet, the radical campus activists were not satisfied with “inclusive freedom”: at the on-campus Town Hall meeting on Freedom of Expression in April, one student accused the Task Force of being “white supremacists” because their draft statement was not clear whether or not white supremacy would be banned on campus (to which one non-white professor on the task force retorted “How dare you call me a white supremacist?”). Another student, while up at the microphone, announced their status as a transgender individual and gave a performative speech about being a “broken body” before emotionally hugging their friend and dramatically rushing out the door.
The Ontario Government’s news release states that universities and colleges must develop, implement, and comply with a free speech policy that “will not only protect free speech but ensure that hate speech, discrimination and other illegal forms of speech are not allowed on campus.” This still does not address the problem that will continuously come up: “hate speech” and “discrimination” are becoming more and more subjective. By virtue of treating Dr. Jordan Peterson’s criticisms of gender-neutral pronouns as a valid part of public discourse, I have myself been accused of both exposing students to hate speech and of being discriminatory towards transgender individuals. Policy or no policy, the same struggle over free speech, open inquiry, and marginalized identities will continue on.