The Senate of Wilfrid Laurier University approved the following statement on freedom of expression at its meeting on May 29, 2018. The statement was developed through an extensive process involving research, consultation and deliberation, which was led by a task force comprised of representatives from the Laurier community.
Wilfrid Laurier University’s purpose is to extend and deepen understanding of the world and ourselves through open-ended, disciplined, and critical enquiry. Freedom of thought, association, and expression are fundamental principles of an open, fair, and inclusive campus, and are core to the discovery, critical assessment, and effective dissemination of knowledge. As history clearly demonstrates, these freedoms establish conditions necessary for critical thought, and for diverse voices to be heard without the fear of repression or reprisal. They are vital to the creation of knowledge, and to challenging the improper use of power. The Wilfrid Laurier University Act upholds these freedoms in defining the objects of the university as “the pursuit of learning through scholarship, teaching, and research within a spirit of free enquiry and expression.”
Laurier unequivocally embraces the principles of free expression required in an academic environment. The university supports the expression, testing, and challenging of a range of perspectives and ideas, including those that may be deemed difficult, controversial, extreme, or even wrong-headed. As an institution of higher learning, Laurier strives to instill throughout its community the ability to think critically, express ideas clearly and persuasively, and articulate positions that are based on reason, evidence, and frameworks of knowledge. The university is distinct from a public square, or an online forum; as an academic institution it is committed to advancing intellectual excellence rooted in diversity of thought in an inclusive learning environment.
As an institution that is deeply committed to free expression, and to diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Laurier community will sometimes be divided over ethical, social, and pedagogical obligations. These disagreements reflect the profound differences of opinion that exist regarding the tension between free expression and other fundamental values and principles. The university acknowledges that members of its community will sometimes struggle with these issues and will even voice dissent about the merit of particular speakers or subject matter in advancing intellectual enquiry or critical discourse and dialogue. Nonetheless, Laurier challenges the idea that free expression and the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be at odds with one another. Instead, the university embraces the concept of “inclusive freedom” which espouses a commitment to the robust protection of free expression, and the assurance that all members – including those who could be marginalized, silenced, or excluded from full participation – have an opportunity to meaningfully engage in free expression, enquiry, and learning.
Laurier recognizes that at times free expression may harm and/or further marginalize community members from visible and invisible minority groups, including, but not limited to those from groups based on Indigeneity, class, race, ethnicity, place of origin, religious creed, spiritual belief, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, age, and ability. In such cases, the university encourages its community members to respond with an educational and intellectual approach that increases awareness and consideration of diverse positions. The university reaffirms its commitment to creating an inclusive environment for all Laurier community members, and to providing access to services that support well-being and safety from physical harm.
Some challenging cases of free expression will have to be navigated, but it is not the role of the university to censor speech. To grant the institution such power would set a dangerous precedent. Even if institutional censorship were deemed acceptable in one context, there is no guarantee that such restriction would be applied fairly or wisely in other contexts, or as power changes hands over time. Rather than restricting speech, Laurier is committed to supporting an open and inclusive environment that also protects free expression. Community members are free to reject and vigorously contest ideas while still recognizing the right to express or hear those ideas. The university aspires for its community to engage in better speech whereby members strive for a high ethical and intellectual standard for open and constructive discourse.
Free expression is never without limits. Canada’s legal frameworks restrict illegal forms of expression such as threats, defamation, discrimination, harassment, unjustified and substantial invasion of privacy and confidentiality, and hate speech. These limits apply to speech on campus in the same way as they apply elsewhere. The university reserves the right to reasonably manage the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of its community, or impinge upon the physical safety of its members. However, this administrative discretion should not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with Laurier’s overarching commitment to free expression. Other context-specific boundaries to free expression apply and are set out in the terms of employment for university staff and faculty, including the university’s faculty collective agreements.
Context is an important consideration in matters of free expression. Inside the classroom, the primary focus is teaching and learning, which must align with the fundamental principles of academic freedom as articulated in Article 7 of the university’s full-time and part-time faculty collective agreements. The commitment to inclusive freedom extends into the classroom, where all students should feel engaged, included, and heard. In an environment that emphasizes intellectually challenging content, there may be times when instructional material or discussions challenge students’ worldviews and identities. However, these moments can be mitigated by strong and balanced pedagogy where openness and respect for human dignity prevail. Students also have the right to expect classrooms that are free from personally directed attacks on their individual character, motives, or attributes.
In campus spaces outside of the classroom, Laurier community members can actively participate in events, forums, and discussions at their own discretion. When confronted with ideas or viewpoints with which they disagree, community members may choose to dissent through, for example, participating in debate, hosting alternative events, inviting speakers to express opposing views, and/or engaging in non-violent protests. The development of such constructive strategies contributes to individual intellectual growth and serves as preparation for ongoing civic engagement. At the university, all forms of expression should be undertaken in a manner that also recognizes the free expression rights of others.
All members of the Laurier community including administrators, faculty, staff, and students share a collective responsibility to build, maintain, and continuously protect an inclusive and respectful institutional culture that champions free expression in the pursuit of knowledge. By supporting free expression in this constructive and pedagogically sound way the university can fulfill its mission, preparing graduates to engage with difficult ideas and challenge the world in all its complexity.
For the purpose of the statement, definitions used are sourced from the Criminal Code of Canada (defamation, hate speech), the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (freedom of expression), and the Ontario Human Rights Code (discrimination, diversity, equity, inclusion, and harassment). It is recognized that these bodies may, over time, modify their definitions. Because the university is committed to operating under best practices and most current definitions, the university recommends that readers consult the original sources to access the most up-to-date definitions.
Inclusive Freedom: Framework for speech on campus that takes seriously the importance of a free and open exchange as a necessary condition for the pursuit of knowledge, and as a contributing condition to the development of civic and democratic capacities. It lends similar weight to the related demand that all members of the campus community be able to participate in this free and open exchange (Ben-Porath, Sigal, Free Speech on Campus, 2017).