Wilfrid Laurier Students’ Union: Free Speech Debate Has ‘Caused Harm’ to Students


byTom Ciccotta1 Dec 20170

The president of the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union released a statement this week that argued that the university’s recent debate on free speech has “caused harm” to students.

Kanwar Bar, the president of the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union and Natalie Gleba, the president of the Wilfrid Laurier Graduate Students’ Association, published a statement this week arguing that the campus’s recent free speech debate has “caused harm” for some students.

In regards to recent events on campus, I have released a joint statement alongside with @NatalieGleba. We acknowledge the harm which has been experienced by some students. We are here to listen and support. Our next step will be to compile feedback to deliver to the Task Force.

— Kanwar Brar (@StudentsUPres) November 30, 2017

Lindsey Shepherd, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, faced an investigation earlier this month over her decision to show her class a television debate on laws acknowledging the unique gender pronouns of transgender persons. In the clip, Peterson debated two panelists who defended legal punishments for those who refuse to comply with unique gender pronouns.

Shepherd’s story exploded into the media after she published secretly recorded audio from her conversation with university investigators. Wilfrid Laurier was ultimately forced to apologize to Shepherd for their interrogation over her decision to show the clip.

“Laurier has been the center of a contentious debate pertaining to academic freedom and freedom of expression. Now that the University has publicized the composition of the Task Force on Freedom of Expression, the student
body has an opportunity to directly contribute to this important discussion,” the pair of Bar and Gleba wrote. “As Presidents of your Union and Association, and student representatives on the task force, we have a duty to listen to our membership and ensure your perspectives are heard.”

The pair continued, “We want to acknowledge that the events of last week. and the subsequent discourse associated with this topic, has caused harm for some Laurier students,” they continued. “The dominant narrative surrounding this story has too often discounted the lived experiences of transgender and non-binary students, and as a result, questioned their very existence.”

Bar and Gleba then argued that academic freedom is only appropriate when it is monitored closely by instructors and teaching assistants.

“The principles of academic dialogue and freedom of expression are integral components of university learning,” they wrote. “While debate is a productive tool of learning, it requires proper contextualization and intentional facilitation by instructors and teaching assistants. In this environment students learn to think critically, understand the nuance of complicated topics, and listen to the perspectives of their classmates. Educational engagement with challenging material should not willfully incite hatred or violence.”

Greg Bird, an assistant professor at Laurier, started a petition asking for the administration to bolster protections for transgender students in light of the recent debate. “A lot of people are being attacked through phone calls…work emails and much more on our campus by some pretty violent and extreme people out there,” Bird said. Bird is part of a group of Laurier community members who suggest that the free speech debate has made “gender-diverse” people feel “unsafe.”

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