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CBC News / Ian Hanomansing

Canadian university responds commendably to free speech controversy, provides example for U.S. institutions

By December 22, 2017

Here at FIRE, we’ve seen the whole range of university responses to free speech controversies on campus. Pressure from all sides to provide an immediate and comprehensive response often leads to misguided statements that only double down on free speech missteps. For this reason, we’re particularly impressed by an update from the president of Wilfrid Laurier University that was released this week. Though Laurier is a Canadian institution and, thus, falls outside of FIRE’s purview, the university’s response to a highly publicized free speech controversy is a valuable example for colleges and universities in the United States.

Laurier was thrust into the spotlight when graduate student Lindsay Shepherd, who was serving as a teaching assistant for a class on communications studies, turned to the subject of gender and language. On November 1, Shepherd showed her class a three-minute clip from a Canadian talk show in which two professors debated the use of non-traditional pronouns for transgender people. After presenting the clip, Shepherd did not take a position on the debate, instead opening up the issue of grammar and pronoun use for class discussion, which she had thought went well.

A few days later, Shepherd was brought into a meeting to be questioned by her supervisors, who explained that a complaint had been made about showing the video clip in class, and that she had possibly violated the school’s policy on gender-based violence. Shortly after a recording of this meeting went viral, Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy issued an apology to Shepherd, explaining that the meeting was not conducted properly, that “Laurier is committed to the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” and that a task force had been launched in order to delve deeper into these issues.

Just under a month after this apology, MacLatchy has made good on these promises, issuing a statement that made a strong commitment to improving the implementation of college procedures, including those relating to free expression. The statement, which is worthwhile to read in full, includes several key lessons that U.S. university leaders would do well to heed:

  1. Be transparent about investigations and their conclusions whenever possible.

In the statement, MacLatchy explains that the university hired an external fact-finder to investigate the meeting between Shepherd and her supervisors and prepare a report. Through this report, MacLatchy found that the meeting should never have happened in the first place, as no formal complaint had been lodged, nor any informal concern relating to Laurier policy. She even went so far as to admit that the meeting was an “institutional failure,” for which she took ultimate responsibility. She further explicitly stated: “There was no wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Shepherd in showing the clip…”

Considering that this issue had been at the center of a viral internet debate and had caused great pressure to be placed on the university and on MacLatchy herself, the transparency regarding the investigation and the specific conclusions here are refreshing.

Instead of withholding information from the public, U.S. universities embroiled in similar controversies would do well to be as transparent as possible when reporting on investigations and their conclusions.

  1. Provide a concrete plan for the review of policies and procedures at issue.

MacLatchy explained that the meeting between Shepherd and her supervisors resulted from errors in judgment compounded by misapplication of existing university policies and procedures. As a result, she said that the university will implement improved training and new procedures, including clear and consistent faculty and teaching assistant training and support. She also admitted that more clarity is needed in the application of their Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy (the policy that Shepherd had been told she might have violated), saying that the policy and corresponding procedures will be placed under full administrative review so that a similar misapplication will not happen in the future. She further took personal responsibility, explaining she has ultimate oversight over management of the existing support and complaint procedures.

Leaders at U.S. institutions should follow this example by explaining missteps in the application of policies and procedures, laying out a specific plan for avoiding these missteps in the future, and taking personal responsibility for the implementation of such plans. As always, FIRE stands ready to assist administrators at U.S. colleges and universities with revising policies that regulate expression.

  1. Reassure students and faculty of their free speech protections, and potentially review free speech policy statements for improvement.

MacLatchy was firm during this part of her statement, arguing that “Laurier has a clear commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression” and that any assertion that this incident is an indictment of Laurier’s commitment to free expression is “unreasonable and unfounded.” She further explained: “Ideas that one finds objectionable should be challenged and debated,” an approach FIRE certainly supports. Importantly, MacLatchy extended support for vulnerable individuals that are a part of the campus community, yet did so without comprising this strong stance on free expression.

In order to better clarify the university’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression, she also reported that the university has established a Task Force on Freedom of Expression to develop “a clear, tangible set of practical, implementable guidelines…”

While Canada’s laws governing free expression differ from the United States’s First Amendment, U.S. university leaders should similarly react to free speech controversies by re-evaluating the clarity and understanding of current free speech policies and by considering adopting a clear set of implementable guidelines for free speech.

Shoring up existing free speech statements or adopting one based on the Chicago Statement, which FIRE considers to be the gold standard for free speech policy statements, provides a foundation upon which a successful response to a free speech issue may be built. Administrators interested in adopting a free speech statement modeled after the Chicago Statement can contact FIRE for assistance.

By considering these steps before a free speech controversy hits, college and university leaders can avoid the pitfalls of other peers, and can instead follow their already-established clear and transparent plan in order to address the concerns of students and the campus community while continuing to safeguard their free speech rights. FIRE hopes more and more colleges and universities will implement such approaches in the coming year.