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Using grant from FIRE, Harvard College Open Campus Initiative hosts discussion on campus censorship

On Saturday, the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative (HCOCI) hosted an event titled “Lindsay Shepherd: Censorship and the Spirit of Debate on Campus.” This event was made possible thanks to a grant from FIRE’s Strategic Venture Grant program, which helps students to host debates, coffeehouse conversations, a discussion series, or other programs where multiple and diverse viewpoints can be explored on campus.

At the event, Shepherd, a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, was interviewed by Harvard student Finn Brown about her experiences with censorship on her campus. Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier, recounted how she was reprimanded for violating the school’s Gendered and Sexual Violence policy for the “offense” of showing her class a clip from a recent debate about gender-neutral pronouns that was broadcast on Canadian public television.

Shepherd explained that she suspected something was up when she was called into a meeting with her supervising professor, and she decided to record it. The staggering recording included her professor likening showing the video to “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.” He further claimed that she was being reprimanded because unnamed students had complained that showing the video made them feel unsafe.

Eventually, the president of Wilfrid Laurier said that the meeting should never have happened, admitted no students had complained, and apologized to Shepherd.

Shepherd discussed how her experience turned her into an advocate for free speech. She now encourages schools to adopt the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago.

The interview portion was followed by a lengthy Q&A session with questions from the audience.

“The event itself was good-natured and the attendees asked very astute questions,” Shepherd told FIRE over email. “I think what the HCOCI does is great, and students on campuses all over North America should consider starting or joining a similar initiative (or just attending their events!) if, like many, they find they lack a forum to critically discuss and hear about issues that many refuse to delve into.”

Members of the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative were similarly pleased with the event. “Speaking to Lindsay Shepherd gave us the opportunity to address a subject of great consequence,” HCOCI founder Conor Healy told FIRE. “Amid uncertainty around the rules of campus speech, the roles and rights of the TAs that do much of our teaching remain mostly unaddressed. Lindsay has certainly brought this issue to the forefront, and we were glad to further the discussion.”

HCOCI officer Kiera O’Brien concurs: “We thank Lindsay for her candor and a great discussion. I think there were some great takeaways about how important open discourse is in Harvard’s lecture halls and classrooms.”

FIRE applauds HCOCI’s event, and we strongly encourage students at colleges across America to apply for the Strategic Venture Grant program to host their own events.

In addition to funding for such events, FIRE offers additional resources for student activists such as our Activism Toolkit and our Guide for Hosting Debates. If you are interested in these issues, consider signing up for the FIRE Student Network and applying for FIRE’s 2018 Summer Internship.

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