The Debate of Free Speech at Wilfrid Laurier University

Since the release of an audio clip recorded by a Master student of a meeting between her, a Professor, and two other members of the Laurier community, life as a student at Wilfrid Laurier University has dramatically changed. As a student at Laurier, I am sure you couldn’t have gotten through last week without having at least one conversation about the Lindsay Shepherd incident. 

For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, please let me inform you of the events which have ignited an international and controversial debate that all started with one student at Wilfrid Laurier University. 

Lindsay Shepherd is a Masters Student at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Teaching Assistant (TA) for an introductory communications course called Mass Communications in Canada. Roughly three weeks ago in a tutorial, Lindsay showed her students a controversial video of Jordan Peterson, a Professor at the University of Toronto, who has become a popular academic and Youtube sensation for his academic comments on an assortment of topics. Specifically, in this video, Jordan Peterson discusses Bill C-16. This Bill is a federal legislation that amends the Canadian Human Rights Act to incorporate both gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited languages of discrimination.

After the display of this video clip in the tutorial, there was an anonymous student complaint, which led to a meeting between Lindsay, Professor Nathan Rambukkana and two other members of the Laurier community - one of who is a member of the Violence Against Women Committee. Lindsay recorded this meeting, and the content of it has led to this major discussion regarding free speech on campus. The auto clip can be found here.

Since the release of this clip, certain incidents have arisen on campus, including an open apology from the university to students and an open letter from Professor Rambukkana to Lindsay. These letters can be found here and here. In addition, the Rainbow Centre released a statement on their Facebook page which discusses how they believe trans voices deserve justice and that Laurier should issue an apology statement towards their community. Finally, an event held by the Conservative Party of the K-W Region on Friday, November 24th involved many speakers, including Lindsay Shepherd and Eric Danudjaja (an individual who shares his opinions with us later in the article). At the same time, a silent protest took place across the street with individuals wearing shirts that read, “Trans people deserve justice.” 

Now that you are up to date on the topic, we thought it was important to ask and share the opinions of Laurier students on the events taking place on campus. Please note that many students requested to remain anonymous for various reasons related to this issue.

To begin, a student in Lindsay’s tutorial wanted to share her perspective on how Lindsay conducted the tutorial, which has led to this entire discussion. 

“Lindsay Shepherd showed the video of Jordan Peterson during a grammar lesson in our class. This video had absolutely nothing to do with what we were learning that day and it felt as if she showed the video to purposely start a discussion about something she had opinions on. The video was showed and she asked the class for some of their thoughts. Some of the comments made for an interesting discussion, but mostly students used it as an excuse to make fun of trans identities.” 

It is clear that this student was not thrilled with the presentation of the video in her class and further points out that, “The faculty is being demonized while Lindsay is being seen as a revolutionary. Lindsay Shepherd is not a freedom of speech hero and should not be treated as such. She created an incredibly unsafe environment for any trans student in her classroom. Mainly, I just believe that everyone should stop jumping to conclusions on the situation and should understand what actually happened in class.” 

Next, a student who identifies as a politically liberal, bisexual, feminist and has a history of working with the Diversity and Equality Office, states her support for free speech and transgender lives. This individual supports free speech and recognizes that there are consequences that come along with things that people say, which we can clearly see as this incident has progressed. This student eloquently states that “I think trans people should have the right to live, to work, to have housing, and to be safe. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with gender identity politics.” 

Furthermore, this student continues to make comments on the statement released by the Rainbow Centre as she says, “I understand where the Laurier Rainbow Centre is coming from, but I really disagree with them saying that discussing these things takes away their right to exist. No one is telling you can’t exist, some people are just disagreeing with some of the things you want people to refer to you as. That is very different from not wanting you to have rights or existence.”

Another Laurier Student, who asked to be anonymous, possibly reflects how many students at Laurier feel with the current situation. This student states that “I agree with the school’s course of action but feel that all parties are going too far, turning the school into an unnecessary warzone. The school apologized, it should be over.” 

Intriguingly, an interview with Erik Danudjaja, the president of the Laurier Conservatives, displayed a different perspective than the student above. He shares the actions and solution that must be taken for protecting free speech at Laurier. Erik shared his opinion on the subject as, “I am by no means a strong Jordan Peterson supporter, but that being said, he definitely has the right to say what he thinks and Lindsay Shepherd has the right to show it in class.” 

“To me, there seems to be a balancing act between free speech and having the right to argue and think about these type of things, such as gender pronouns, but also having the ability to be sensitive to how people feel. Because this is a sensitive subject, we have to be careful about a group who have been obviously marginalized.”  

Erik was a part of organizing the rally which occurred this past Friday. Erik states that one of the purposes of this rally,“[was] to bring together a collection of students who would like to have their voices heard.” He states that the importance of this rally was to bring forth discussion from all different perspectives.

 I asked Erik what solutions he and his fellow associates plan to enact to resolve this conflict. The solution of the Conservative Party of the K-W Region is to pass a plan called the Chicago Policy. This policy originated at the University of Chicago and has since been set in the legislation of other universities, such as Princeton, and the newest university to join is our neighbours down the street, University of Waterloo. 

Erik continues to explain this policy and what it means for students at Laurier as he says, “This is not just a protest, we are here to push policy. At the very basis of it, free speech is the most important thing you can have on a university campus. We have created a Laurier policy, authored by a professor at Laurier, with the support of about 30 other Laurier professors.”

Erik finished by explaining that, “With this policy, a student like Lindsay has a document to bring forth that supports their individual right to free speech on campus.”

Every individual has their own opinion on any issue, including the current one, and we are beginning to see how differing opinions impact university campuses. Although Wilfrid Laurier University’s current controversy is what provoked this discussion of free speech to a degree which has never been taken to before, the prevalence of free speech is not a new issue for Canadian universities. 

I would like to thank all the students who shared their opinions with Her Campus Wilfrid Laurier on this topic.