Many Americans lament the decline of the university. The treasured concept of academic freedom has become a rusty, broken-down relic in less than a generation. Meanwhile, the cherished principles of free speech and intellectual discourse on campus have been replaced by political correctness and the hurt feelings of the snowflake brigade.
Yet the frustrating experiences of American students may actually pale in comparison to a recent incident at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student in communications, managed two tutorials in her particular discipline. Like typical university students of yesteryear, she wanted to design an intellectually stimulating environment to discuss and debate controversial issues. So, she went to YouTube and downloaded a five-minute clip from TVOntario’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, a well-regarded, publicly funded debate show. The clip that she selected contained a spirited debate about gender-neutral pronouns between two University of Toronto professors, Nicholas Matte and Jordan Peterson. The latter has been a frequent guest on The Agenda, and more recently made a name for himself in Canada and the U.S. by strongly opposing the use of non-gendered pronouns.
Shepherd showed this debate during her tutorials. Students were apparently interested and engaged during this discussion, and the conversation was lively. But afterward, an unnamed student reportedly launched a complaint, and Shepherd was accused of violating the university’s gender and sexual-violence policy. This led to a meeting with Professor Nathan Rambukkana, who serves as her supervisor, Professor Herbert Pimlott, and Adria Joel, who manages the institution’s Gendered Violence Prevention and Support program.
Shepherd recorded this conversation (publicly, not covertly) and later released the audio for public consumption. Here are several bizarre moments:
• She is asked whether she was once “one of Jordan Peterson’s students,” as if her decision to record the meeting was part of some sort of a set-up or sting operation. She’s not one of Peterson’s students, nor has she ever been; she attended Simon Fraser University in British Columbia for her bachelor’s degree, while Peterson teaches at the University of Toronto. (Incidentally, she later pointed out that, “I disagree with Jordan Peterson, but you people seem to think I’m pro-Jordan Peterson.”)
• Peterson is accused of being part of the alt-right. He’s not, and considers himself an adherent to classic British liberalism.
• Peterson was also accused of holding intolerant points of view. This doesn’t seem to be the case but, like many things in life, it’s often a matter of interpretation.
• The clip is said to have contravened university policy by causing harm to “trans students” and creating a “toxic climate.” No proof is provided to back up that charge.
• Her decision to show the video is said to have violated Section C-16 in Canada’s Human Rights Code with respect to hate propaganda and gender identification. A fascinating analysis, since this section has nothing to do with either transgender pronouns or discussions in university classrooms and tutorials.
Here’s the real kicker. On the recording, Shepherd asks her supervisor, “But can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they are insulated away from this? . . . Because to me, that is so against what a university is about. So against it. I was not taking sides. I was presenting both arguments.” These questions aren’t really addressed by her interlocutors, but when she goes on to suggest that “in a university all perspectives are valid,” Rambukkana responds, “That’s not necessarily true” and says her decision not to take sides was “like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.”
While you don’t have to defend an opposing point of view, you must support a person’s right to hold such a position in a free and democratic society.
That’s right: Shepherd’s inquisitors argued that she should have been an active participant rather than a silent moderator because an imaginary line can somehow be drawn between an outspoken university professor and Adolf Hitler. This is what our universities have come to.
A new, baffling twist in this story has just developed. National Post columnist Christie Blatchford wrote yesterday that well-known Toronto employment lawyer Howard Levitt, “who represents Shepherd pro bono,” contacted the university’s hired legal representative, Rob Centa, to find out more about the original complaint. This is part of what Centa sent to Levitt: “I do not believe there is a document that contains a ‘complaint’ made about Ms. Shepherd nor is there anything I would describe as a formal complaint under any WLU policy.”
Fortunately, one good thing came out of this insane episode: The vast majority of right-leaning and left-leaning Canadians both recognized that Rambukkana, Pimlott, and Joel had made a mockery of free speech.
Championing free speech and expression is a two-way street. You have to consistently defend speech that you fundamentally agree with as well as speech that you completely oppose. While you don’t have to defend an opposing point of view, you must support a person’s right to hold such a position in a free and democratic society.
Wilfrid Laurier University was humiliated in the public eye, and was forced to apologize. Shepherd wisely questions the sincerity of this apology, and appears to be looking at this issue in a very different light. As for the future of free speech on Canadian university campuses, it is much like what one sees on American university campuses: a dimming light growing fainter by the minute.