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UBC shelves new freedom of expression statement

People walk past large letters spelling out UBC at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., on Nov. 22, 2015.

Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The University of British Columbia has shelved a draft of a new statement on freedom of expression that professors argued was necessary to provide boundaries amid a wave of controversies at Canadian universities about how conflicts over speech and discrimination are addressed.

A working group of nine professors and administrators drawn from across the university submitted a two-page draft of a new statement to UBC president Santa Ono at the end of September. A version of that statement was expected to be unveiled at an upcoming meeting of the school's board of governors.

However, the president's office has decided not to proceed and will continue to rely on remarks made by past president Stephen Toope in 2009 and a variety of existing policies, a university spokesperson said.

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"The president thought maybe it was time to look at the statement on freedom of expression in light of the attention it has been getting across North America," said Susan Danard, the university's director of public affairs. "But once they looked at the existing wording, they realized it stood the test of time," she said.

But not updating the statement deprives the campus community of a chance to discuss how to deal with conflicts that are increasing across North American universities, some said.

"The university needs to try and have a proper dialogue, difficult and awkward and highly charged, to try and find some general understanding of what the boundaries are," said Paul Russell, a philosophy professor who has been involved in campus debates over speech at UBC.

A statement could have also drawn a line against speech that can silence another person's freedom of expression, others said.

"Balancing on the one hand, the right to freedom of expression, and on the other hand, freedom from discrimination, I think that is an important move to take," said Mary Bryson, Senior Associate Dean in UBC's Faculty of Education, who uses the pronoun they, and was one of the members of the working group. "It's important to recognize that there are unique threats to freedom faced in particular by minority students, staff and faculty," they said.

Debates over freedom of expression have erupted on American campuses over the past year and have at times – like at Berkeley in California and Middlebury College in Vermont – flared in violence. At other universities, faculty members have been harassed online after denouncing right-wing speakers, while a few universities have forced instructors who made controversial remarks to take leaves of absence.

Free-speech battles in Canada – whether protests surrounding visits to various campuses by controversial U of T professor and YouTube phenom Jordan Peterson, or a recent complaint at Dalhousie University against a student's Facebook post – have been less heated.

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The draft of the statement that was submitted to Dr. Ono emphasized that this country's provincial and Charter protections of minority rights and against hate speech impose a different set of responsibilities in Canada than south of the border.

Earlier this year, Dr. Russell defended an undergraduate student. Franz Kurtzke faced public criticism from faculty members and a senior administrator for distributing leaflets on campus criticizing the "social justice" movement and containing links to articles and videos criticizing some of the movement's views on rape culture and the gender wage gap.

"He has a right to express concerns, and possibly I and others can come back and say we don't agree with that at all," said Dr. Russell, who is also the director of the Gothenburg Responsibility Project at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "What I don't think [his critics] have the right to say is that he was violating respectful conduct, and much less that he should be outed, identified and subject to sanctions of some sort. That was the line that I was intending to draw," he said.

Universities are ideal environments in which to have difficult discussions, said Neil Guppy, senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom and the lead author of the draft statement.

"Freedom needs to have with it the enabling notions of civility and inclusion and equality: That is what makes the university environment different from other environments," Dr. Guppy said. "This is not the bully pulpit where you get up there and shout out opinions and try to drown out your opponents. This is a place where critical reasoning and incisive thought takes place and that requires this notion of civility," he said.

The draft, which was titled Freedom Matters, was more comprehensive than prior statements and included a paragraph on reconciliation, as well as examples of how freedom of expression can be infringed upon in research, teaching or administration, Dr. Guppy explained.

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Several university presidents in Canada have released statements on freedom of expression over the past few years, and Dr. Ono announced that he wanted to release a new statement as part of this year's welcoming message to the university community.

"I … want to reaffirm my personal commitment to academic freedom," he wrote in a September letter posted to UBC's website. "[All] members of our community must work to ensure everybody feels welcome and safe. UBC fosters a welcoming, open community for discussing and debating all ideas and practices, no matter how complex, contentious, or difficult."

Some people at the university would have liked to see broader consultation on the statement from the beginning.

"Because we are not in the middle of a storm and we know we are not immune from conflicts over diversity and plurality, it should be a campus-wide conversation," said Ayesha Chaudhry, Canada research chair in religion, law and social justice at UBC and a member of the university's board of governors.

"When political discourse becomes hyberbolic it hurts the working of democracy – a strong democracy needs an educated population that can engage ideas," she said.

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More

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