Category Archives: Academic Freedom

The manufactured free speech crisis and how we should respond

On the heels of the academic new year, as students are preparing to return to class and instructors are scrambling to put their syllabi together, Ford decreed that colleges and universities must implement free speech policy, or risk losing public funding. This is a big demand coming from the Ford administration, considering only a week prior Ford set up a snitch site to bully primary and secondary teachers into using an out-dated and anti-queer sex-ed curriculum. It is a perplexing thought that a government that relies on strong arm politics would interfere with knowledge production to satisfy the free speech boogieman.

It could be a symbolic gesture to please his social conservative base, who have spun up a mythology that colleges and universities are unsafe places for right-wing thinking. Or it could be that Ford is a social conservative himself, who believes that the far-right should have the capacity to advocate against marginalized folks without consequence.

Free speech issues are perplexing, multidimensional, and complex — it is an agonizing process of constantly balancing the imperative to speak truth to power with the need to foster anti-oppressive strategies. However, in its current form in the public discourse, free speech arguments are being used as a rhetorical strategy on the far-right to legitimize hate speech (or dog whistling hate speech) on campus spaces.

Free speech and the far-right

Campus free speech issues became contentious in Ontario politics following the Lindsay Shepherd controversy where a teaching assistant manufactured a free speech crisis out of her inability to hijack the content of a University class to question the existence of non-binary trans folks. Though Shepherd likely didn’t intend for the public fiasco that emerged in the wake of her disclosures, her incident provided the far-right with a martyr that they could use to pull public heart strings. The Federal Conservatives, via Andrew Scheer, immediately made a gesture of support by declaring colleges and universities spaces hostile to free speech.

Shepherd was run through the news cycles of op-eds and feature interviews, while simultaneously maintaining a popular Twitter presence where she verbally attacked trans and POC activists. Shepherd is not the topic of this paper, but her presence in the politics of free speech is emblematic of the issues I want to touch on. Click here for a more detailed analysis of the Shepherd controversy.

In an effort to tap into this oasis of conservative values, as well as to please his bigoted social conservative base, Ford made a campaign promise to enforce free speech policies on campus and enforce this demand through funding conditions.

I think Ford’s politics are dangerous for several reasons. First, it shows a vast ignorance about how academic freedom and free speech work in practice at academic institutions. Second, the government is attempting to give far-right bigots a get-out-of-jail-free card to spread racist, (cis)sexist, and homophobic BS on campus, while stating that protesting bigoted speakers is unacceptable. Such an argument immediately elevates the free speech of some, from the free speech of others.

The major controversy that free speech advocates tap into is the existence of protests meant to de-platform controversial and offensive speakers. I see a lot of social media debate focusing on the de-platforming of Faith Goldy, neo-Nazi and white supremacist, at Wilfrid Laurier University because someone pulled the fire alarm. Ford Nation wants the ability to speak about oppressive politics without the ability for resistance or consequences. They are working to normalize the presence of fascist ideologs who propose that society should be actively hostile towards non-white, non-straight, and non-cis folks.

Ford’s government is calling for the implementation of the Chicago Principles, a common goal in right-wing free speech circles. The Chicago Principles refer to the Statement on Principles of Free Expression, a non-binding policy statement published by the University of Chicago to address de-platforming strategies used against offensive speakers.

Though the policy nuances that free speech is never an absolute condition and that there’s sometimes reasonable restrictions on speech and expression on campus, it is broadly insufficient at addressing the major tensions between the right to speak and the need for anti-oppression policies. It’s major contribution, and why it is so popular among the far-right, is that it targets protesters, usually from the left, who are concerned that far-right speakers are normalizing bigotry.

The policy statement reads: “Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe”.

Of course, arguments for free speech must include the right to protest ideas as well, and the lines between a protest and efforts to de-platform are often very blurry. The Chicago Principles have no way of dealing with these tensions.

The oppressive consequences of universalist free speech policy

The fundamental issue that I have with these policies is that the authors do not account for the existence of structural disadvantages that marginalized folks face in a socially stratified society. If the baseline in our society is inequality, then it’s clear that within a system of absolute free speech, only those sitting on the top of that hierarchy will be free to say and do as they please.

Far too often, the consequences of structural inequalities and privileges that disadvantage many while benefiting some are ignored or overlooked. To be fair, it’s difficult to spot out the effects of social stratification as it’s become so common sense in our day-to-day lives. It takes deep reflection and study to objectively glance at the social privileges you might avail of and even more rigorous work to do comprehensive research on the societal impacts of social inequalities. This is why sociological and anthropological research is so perplexing — it is the art of making opaque socio-cultural processes visible in order to agitate for change.

Mapping out relations of inequality and privilege often include an analysis of socio-economic stratification, as well as the impacts of other vectors of identity. Our presence in the world is impacted by our gender, sex, race, ability, class, and sexual identities. Some groups have a much wider access to economic, social, and cultural resources with the pinnacle of this access sitting with white, cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) men. To be clear, I’m not seeking to diminish the struggles of men, but to highlight that other folks have compounded struggles to deal with that white cishet men typically don’t experience.

For instance, as a trans woman I’m made to consistently navigate hostile publics that make the mere act of leaving home an anxiety-ridden adventure into the unknown. Every time I present identification in public, I’m viewed with suspicion. If I’m recognized as trans in the street, my presence draws uncomfortable, disapproving glances and sometimes harassment. I must consider how every new person in my life might react to my trans identity. And how my identity will impact my ability to get a job or sufficient housing.

When I enter academic spaces, I might have to deal with debates about whether I am allowed to be in a woman’s washroom or whether or not my identity is even legitimate or authentic.

These are all life conditions which exist for me, and not for cishet men, and they are only present because of the existence of cissexism, or the idea that cisgender identities are inherently superior to transgender identities.

It’s very easy for folks who do not experience structural inequality to forget that a lot of people have it worse. It’s also difficult for us to empathize with those who are different from us. And this oppressive cocktail leads to a lack of sensitivity for the struggles marginalized folks are made to face in everyday life.

This is compounded by the fact that it is becoming increasingly more acceptable to spread white supremacist, nationalist, and cishet patriarchal politics. For instance, there was an outpour of public support when Faith Goldy was de-platformed at Wilfrid Laurier University. Folks were pissed off that a racist sitting on the fringe of far-right politics wasn’t able to speak at an institution of learning.

My main contention in this essay is that the implementation of a universalist and enforceable free speech policy ignores the existence of socio-cultural stratification and thus is insufficient to protect the free speech of everyone.

When we let figures like Faith Goldy and Jordan Peterson spread hostile ideologies across college and university campuses we inevitably create a chilly environment for marginalized folks. This means that for marginalized folks to rebuttal attacks on their basic human rights, they need to stand up to figures hostile to their existence and the oftentimes violent retaliation from their supporters. For instance, the last time I wrote about these issues in relation to the Lindsay Shepherd fiasco, I was forced to endure a great deal of Internet abuse from folks who simultaneously disagreed with my analysis and dehumanized my existence.

However, the intimidation tactics and forms of political violence that are meant to target marginalized writers, activists, and scholars aren’t considered a form of de-platforming by the vast majority of people. The goals of “name and shame” tactics over the Internet are often used against marginalized folks to push them into silence. The stakes of public participation are burdened with a fear of reprisal from hate groups, and their supporters.

I can think of several academic colleagues that I know who are afraid to mention certain ideas in their analysis because it might generate a cybermob. These voices are censored, because there are no supports put into place to protect their right to academic freedom and free speech. And the mainstream is to busy musing about how the very famous Jordan Peterson is censored (even though he isn’t, and he’s made a fortune off of his public presence).

There is never any public discussion about these issues, as we always get distracted by manufactured free speech crises by public figures with huge platforms.

If we have a free speech model that ignores the existence and consequences of a stratified and hierarchal society, we are only uplifting the voices of those at the top of this hierarchy. The far-right have been asserting that they are being censored and silenced by the “intolerable left”, although this is far from the truth. It’s voices on the left who get singled out and silenced by University administrations and such actions are rarely featured in the mainstream media. The far-right are just able to make a bigger deal out of being censored, and they are empowered by the complicity of everyone else.

A rigged debate

Free speech conversations are messy by nature, because they deal with the vexing overlap of the need of marginalized folks to fight for emancipation from structural inequalities with the need of a political climate where it is okay to upset the status quo. Theoretically, we should be able to find a policy solution that allows for a constant assessment of the fine line between these two points. In practice, these discussions are muddied by the far-right, who often willingly champion free speech arguments as a dog whistle for bigotry.

Dog whistling is a clever rhetorical strategy that allows a group to embed a subtextual meaning in their speech that is generally invisible to those who are ill-equipped to recognize it. So when the far-right say that gender identity and expression being protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a form of compelled speech (forcing someone to use correct pronouns under the threat of criminalization), it’s also advocating hostility towards trans folks.

For those who don’t have a deeper knowledge about the terms and consequences of a public debate will come to see progressive activism as SJW “political correctness”, and not as a defence of the basic human rights and dignity of trans folks.

This is what sociologists call media manipulation, or the use of political rhetorical strategies that are made to use publicly acceptable debates as vehicles for their more hostile and radical political ideologies. It’s not transphobia, because Peterson or Shepherd have not directly said that they don’t like trans folks. But the implications of their arguments are hostile towards the basic human rights and dignity of those of us under the trans umbrella.

Furthermore, the Chicago Principles only recognize that free speech isn’t absolute in relation to the law. That means in Canada, the exception to free speech policy is any speech or expression that falls under hate crime as defined by the Criminal Code, which is defined as speech that advocates for violence or genocide against a fixed group of people.

The criminal justice system uses a high threshold for what a judge might consider to be hate speech. As Jennifer Yang reported for the Toronto Star, “The burden of proof is high, conviction rates are low and what actually constitutes a “hate crime” isn’t explicitly defined by the Criminal Code”. In the case of the pronoun debates, what Peterson and Shepherd have to say about trans folks is not considered hate, even while it dog whistles a transphobic and cissexist worldview. Legal expert Brenda Cossman has a super useful article exploring the messiness of the pronoun debate from the legal perspective.

It’s also important to point out that controversial speakers aren’t legally responsible for their supporters, meaning that when Peterson or Shepherd rile up their base, they are not held responsible for the targeted harassment enacted by their cybermobs.

How should colleges and universities respond?

Since Ford mandated that colleges and universities must cobble together these policies by the new year, we need to start conversations about how to include social justice and anti-oppression provisions into the Chicago Principles immediately.

A good starting point has been developed at Laurier following the public relations fallout in the aftermath of the Shepherd controversy. After a comprehensive review of the state of free speech on campus, Deborah MacLatchy, vice-chancellor and president, announced their movement towards a “better speech” policy.

In her op-ed for the Globe and Mail, MacLatchy writes, “In the face of language that threatens the humanity of our students, staff or faculty, we must continually promote better speech. This means questioning and challenging opinions with sound arguments and evidence. Students and faculty must be able to share views and experiences while simultaneously committing to high ethical and intellectual standards for open, constructive conversations”.

Calling for critical reflection, she continues, “Inclusive freedom involves a vigorous commitment to free speech, coupled with the assurance that all individuals have an opportunity to engage in free expression, inquiry and learning”.

Of course, this sort of policy is akin to leaky patchwork. It inevitably places the burden of defending social justice on those who are already marginalized. For instance, it will be largely trans folks who are made to defend their basic humanity against bigoted speech.

I am unsure how “inclusive freedom” in free speech policies will work in practice (if they work at all), but it does provide us with a foundation to start a more nuanced conversation.

We need to begin with the premise that absolutist approaches for free speech fail to address how marginalized folks are silenced.

In order to ensure that we are heard by the authoritative bodies of college and university campuses across the province, we need to employ every tool we have access too. Student unions and federations need to put the pressure on University Senates to think more deeply and critically about the shape of their free speech policies. Professors and graduate students need to put forward sensible and nuanced accounts about how academic freedom and free speech function in the academy. And we might need to mobilize and protest the decisions of the University administration.

They need to hear us speak about the things that silence our speech. They need to be shown that media manipulation and digital political violence are often used against marginalized writers, speakers, and advocates on the very campuses we are speaking about. And that those forms of violence and the folks who deploy them often masquerade under the cover of free speech.

We need to ensure that the Chicago Principles do not become a pathway to bigotry across college and university campuses. Instead we should take Ford’s political intervention as an opportunity to think deeply about these issues and put forward novel ways to nurture accountable, academic spaces for students and researchers.

Free speech, messy epistemologies, and the reframing of the WLU controversy

A trimmed down, edited version of this article was published in The Conversation.

Free Speech rally at Wilfrid Laurie University

The Lindsay Shepherd controversy has opened the Pandora’s Box once again on the notorious, vitriol-ridden “free speech” debate across Canada. It has largely consisted of tired arguments penned up in op-eds advocating that the university has become home to left-wing authoritarians who muzzle the speech of those with whom they disagree. Such debates have become so politically noxious that Andrew Sheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has jumped on board—calling for a political response to the free speech crisis in universities. Furthermore, Lindsay Shepherd has become an alt-right darling in the amplified calls for free speech on campus; she now has roughly nineteen thousand followers on Twitter and is consistently feeding the fire with toxic tweets. One tweet reading, “Confirmed: WLU is a mental institution”.

Debates about free speech have a tendency to become unnuanced and flat as they typically amount to blanket statements that call for the unbridled and unrestricted ability to say anything. As I explored in an article for Vice, such an understanding of free speech is complicated sociologically when superimposed on a society already stratified along vectors of identity. Free speech becomes even more nebulous when we read the sub-text of free speech advocacy which often cozies up with white supremacy, transphobia, and sexism.

I want to shift the discussion about free speech. Instead of focusing on why the academy needs free speech, I would like to ask how free speech is reasonably deployed in the scholarly pursuit of knowledge production. This analytical shift will allow us to move beyond romanticised notions of free speech and academic freedom and consider the various ways in which knowledge emerges and becomes entangled in institutional practices and professional obligations.

This debate has by-and-large ignored the ways in which knowledge is produced and shaped within the academy. I would like to suggest that the epistemological insights of science, technology, and society (STS) can provide a scaffolding to understand the complexities of free speech in practice, as opposed to free speech in theory. Epistemology is the study of knowledge production. Despite the centrality of knowledge in all our social encounters, epistemological issues are often undervalued. Donna Haraway illustrates the importance of the structures of knowledge in this beautiful quote, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with, it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”  The various shapes of the in-between matter that inform how we understand the world have consequences for how we frame free speech.

The production of knowledge in the academy is laden with formal and informal processes that shape how knowledge is produced, debated, disseminated, and taught. The sociologist, John Law, provides a useful framework for approaching knowledge production in the academy. He draws our intention to the messiness of the world in practice;how human emotions, scientific methods, institutional priorities, research ethics boards, peer review committees, professional reputations, class syllabi, employment contracts, graduate student committees, and codes of conduct become entangled when we go about the business of saying or writing something. When we talk about free speech, these constraints are made opaque despite their centrality in shaping how we talk, write, and debate.

A graduate student, depending on their discipline and department, will typically take graduate courses, be employed as a teaching assistant (TA), and research their independent thesis work. In order to guide a budding scholar through the complexities of academic research and politics, a grad student works under a committee. Such committees are made up of professors who have been rewarded PhDs for their familiarity and experience as academics. One of these committee members is the grad student’s supervisor who very closely guides that student’s academic work. All research produced for the student’s thesis must be rigorously checked by their supervisor and committee. This leads to a painful process of sending in drafts and receiving back red marks. Such a process shapes what knowledge is reliable, rigorous, and fair, and what knowledge is inappropriate, poorly thought out, and not defendable. If a student ignores their committee, they will likely fail their thesis defense and not receive a degree.

If a grad student were to write their own independent research, to give it credibility they would need to submit it to an academic journal. All reputable journals use a peer-review process where a committee of scholars assess the quality, reliability, and credibility of academic work and reject work that doesn’t meet academic standards. Poor research is sent back to the grad student to be revised or sent elsewhere. And some work is rejected for not meeting the criteria of the peer reviewers. Grad students need to have tough skin, as we will get torn to pieces several times a year.

There are other ways in which academic knowledge is reasonably shaped. Research on human subjects is tightly controlled by General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) that are informed by federal policy and legislation. If a grad student ignores GREB, they could be expelled and have their credentials revoked. Academic conduct is held to a Code of Conduct and other university policies that shape how scholars can interact with each other. And ultimately, the university must abide by the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect people in the scholarly community against hate crimes and discrimination.

Finally, a grad student typically becomes a TA to help fund their studies. This is an admittedly precarious job that usually have students working overtime with no extra pay. The TA signs an employment contract, works under a professor who teaches the course, and does not have any authority to teach their own content. TAs do not have the same academic freedom as professors. Aadita Chaudhurry, a PhD student at York University, penned up an article that appropriately delves into how Shepherd failed at her obligations as a TA. Grievances with professors are often mediated through a public service union that advocates on behalf of the grad student.

These formal restrictions on how knowledge is produced are complemented with informal occupational norms that are enforced by students, faculty, and administration. This is the everydayness of the academy. A grad student can’t just write anything. Everything a grad student does in public (including their publications) are informally assessed by colleagues and professors. Miscalculations or poorly thought out work can negatively impact the future of a grad student.

To engage in proper research in the academy is to maneuver through the tangled red tape of policies, expectations, institutions, regulations, and professional obligations. This has a grad student dancing and staggering back and forth through research and teaching and negotiating and compromising on the substance of their scholarly practices. This is the messiness of epistemology in practice. These processes are all swept away in popular debates around free speech in the academy. Such arguments are far too easy because they ignore how the academy functions as a complex institution and community.

And don’t get me wrong. None of these processes or practices are immune from criticism. But that is an entirely different discussion than the one being advocated by Lindsay Shepherd. Academic freedom is certainly important, but so are the ways in which it can and cannot be practiced. University administration, faculty associations, and student and labor unions are constantly in friction over how these limits should take shape. These are discussions that are always already happening and do not get near the press attention that Shepherd’s employment bungle has attracted. If the academy is in crisis, its critics are focusing on the wrong issues.