Toronto, Ont. May 13, 2018 — Should universities censor free speech? Laurier University continues to debate the meaning of freedom of thought, association, and expression as, this week, it finalises its free speech policy.
Last year, Laurier University began to rethink its free speech policy after teaching assistant, Lindsay Shepard, presented material to her students that some at the university claimed lacked credibility. The incident sparked the ongoing debate of whether all perspectives of an argument are valid.
To challenge the university’s position on critical thinking, Shepard and fellow students formed “The Laurier Society of Open Inquiry” and invited speakers whom many at the university considered controversial. The university responded by charging hefty security costs for the second speaker-debate back to Shepard’s society.
The decision to charge the society for the event’s security raises the question of whether Laurier wishes to thwart certain conversations on campus, or whether it really supports the spirit of open inquiry, as stated in its new policy.
Two Laurier professors, David Haskell and William McNally revealed in an interview recorded last December with Jordan Peterson, that Laurier University encourages its faculty members to think in a certain way, and pushes leftist values. Said McNally: “It is very much a one-sided conversation…they [the administration at Laurier] talk about diversity but they really don’t mean it because they do not want… students who are ideologically diverse.”
Shepard, in response to the university’s resistance to her efforts to promote open inquiry, as well as months of online and on-campus bullying and name-calling, including the title of “Alt-Right Hero,” stated in a March 21 YouTube video, that she no longer sympathises with the left, who she claims are intolerant of diversity and thought.
Shepard’s ostracization by the Laurier community opens the question of whether universities are really capable of extending and deepening human understanding. Perhaps they intend to practice coercion.
It is a university’s responsibility to push the boundaries of thought. Every argument has at least two sides and it should not be up to the university to determine an argument’s outcome. University education should offer the opportunity to promote new ideas and provoke thought. How can we frame positive discourse with one viewpoint only?
Indeed, in the Laurier case, it is curious that university professors, given the opportunity to debunk someone they see as a potential fraud, would decline the invitation by Shepard to debate her guest speakers. Would the greater good not come from winning an argument, rather than silencing the speaker? What lesson does this teach students?
Philosopher Noam Chomsky, on the subject of free speech, states that we must encourage people to think for themselves: that we shouldn’t silence those we don’t agree with but win the argument. And the point of university is to search for the truth, an endeavour that keeps university classes full. But the search for truth will sometimes push us to engage with uncomfortable and challenging subjects.
This is the spirit of critical thinking.
But allowing freedom of speech does not permit freedom from responsibility. Liars and propagandists must be held accountable. We must separate propaganda from truth. Free speech must involve purposeful dialogue and allow dissection through a fair and even argument. Presenting both sides of an argument is only fair, but the content must be free of coercion.
The question is who determines the truth from the lies? The two can only be detangled through fair and equal debate.