As in the U.S., Free Speech Threatened at Colleges and Universities in Canada. Here’s How to Restore Free Expression

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The plague of censorship on college campuses has crept north. A new survey of college and university faculty in Canada offers evidence that preserving free expression is vital to the search for truth—and that the current fight to protect free speech on campus is not unique to the U.S.

Writing for Quillette this week, two students at the University of Alberta provide the results from their email survey of professors and other academic staff at colleges and universities across their country. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said “certain popular values in the university cannot be challenged without harm to their career at least sometimes.” According to the survey, 23 percent reported that they “feel restrictions on the types of ideas they can pursue in their research/teaching,” and 11 percent said that the “quality of their scholarship [suffered] due to pressure to avoid controversy at least sometimes.”

Thirty-nine percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that “their students would receive a better education [if] academic freedom was better protected by strong policy.”

Such findings should not surprise those who have followed University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson’s career or even just the events over the last 18 months at Wilfred Laurier University. Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has argued in favor of the right to free speech and spoken out against a Canadian law known as “C-16” that, as explained by The Heritage Foundation’s Emilie Kao, “added ‘misgendering’ to the human rights code and criminal code.”

At Wilfred Laurier, a teaching assistant used videos in class featuring individuals on opposing sides of C-16, including Peterson. The teaching assistant, Lindsay Shepherd, would later tell university officials that she disagrees with Peterson but thought it was important to give both sides of the issue.

Shepherd told officials, “But can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they are insulated away from this? Like, is that what the point of this is? Because to me, that is so against what a university is about. So against it. I was not taking sides. I was presenting both arguments.”

Shepherd was “grilled” for showing the 3-minute clip of Peterson’s remarks even though she also showed videos from those on the other side of the topic. The university president later wrote a public apology, but the episode is reminiscent of recent speech-related incidents on campuses across the U.S.

Taken separately, the Wilfred Laurier sequence of events and an email survey by students in Alberta are not the last word on the issue of academic freedom on campus in Canada. But together, along with the ongoing struggle to listen and be heard at colleges and universities in the U.S., these examples demonstrate the overlap between free speech restrictions and a lack of intellectual diversity on many campuses.

Fortunately for students in Canada, ideas that protect free speech on campus are also moving north—hopefully in time to counter the censorship. In Ontario, policymakers have required colleges and universities to adopt mission statements in favor of free expression similar to the statement developed by the University Chicago. In the U.S., state lawmakers in Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Georgia have adopted proposals concerning public colleges that include such a provision, along with other sections that allow students and faculty to express opinions on current affairs without fear of institutional reprisal (among other key provisions). Here’s hoping more public officials at home and abroad use these ideas to counter threats to academic freedom and free speech on campus.

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