On November 8, 2017, the University of British Columbia released a problematic statement regarding freedom of expression.  For convenience, it is re-presented here:

Especially in turbulent times, when facing challenges of contentious and divisive politics, economic uncertainty, terrorism, and environmental upheaval, the freedom to express and explore ideas must continue as our central mission.  As one of the world’s foremost universities, UBC must vigorously promote and defend the freedoms necessary for the successful pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.  Freedom of expression is, however, one of a number of rights and freedoms each of us has.  One person’s freedom of expression cannot be allowed to trample the freedom or wellbeing of others.

For centuries, universities have held a special place in society.  We are entrusted as guardians of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humanity, as trailblazers in advancing the frontiers of human knowledge and thought, and as leaders, mentors, and teachers in disseminating the fruits of this knowledge.  Central to this three-fold mission is the promotion of “the freest possible exchange of information, ideas, beliefs, and opinions in diverse forms” (see UBC Respectful Environment statement).  So, for example,

  1. How can we safeguard the lessons of the past if objectionable parts of the historical record are suppressed? 
  2. How can we create significant breakthroughs if entire lines of inquiry are forbidden? 
  3. How can we equip students to tackle future challenges, if they are shielded from demanding, provocative thought? 

Two principal reasons underlie our deep and abiding commitment to freedom of expression.  First, pursuing ideas freely and openly moves us closer to truth, allowing all ideas to be criticized and tested, accepted and revised.  Universities are communities of scholars where the free and open exchange of thought, belief, opinion, and expression is highly valued because it promotes better knowledge and understanding.  Second, our scholarly community is composed of people with diverse histories and cultural viewpoints while also encompassing a wide array of disciplinary perspectives.  This diversity makes universities, and especially UBC, a place unlike other institutions.  When all the voices of a diverse university community can participate equally in intellectual exchanges, this provides a rich, vibrant resource that helps in promoting a wide spectrum of expertise and opportunities in the pursuit of excellence.

Here is a significant example of why freedom of expression matters at UBC.  A core challenge in Canada, and one to which UBC is committed to addressing, is the ongoing process of truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.  Our collective lack of a shared knowledge about the lasting effects of our colonial past acts as an impediment to the essential conversations and negotiations that progress on these multiple issues requires. This is exacerbated by historic power imbalances that make this a complicated, difficult engagement.  It is an engagement that can only be tackled principally and ethically in a spirit of free and open dialogue and respect.

Scholarly dialogue should help us make progress on difficult and complex problems like this.  The intellectual richness of the university comes in recognizing alternatives, having contentious conversations, tackling stubborn assumptions, making brash conjectures, discussing uncomfortable facts, and engaging with sharp differences in values and visions.  Scholarly work finds its dynamism in this engagement.  It is the work that universities must do and do well (and, of course, we have not always done well as the need for truth and reconciliation highlights). Doing it well means holding open the idea that persuasion is still possible, that thought and evidence and reason can lead to solutions for the many grand challenges we face.

The educational benefit of exposure to diverse understandings, views, opinions, and thoughts, when done appropriately and respectfully, comes in developing the skills of intellect and character, the inner resources and personal resilience, which allows one to successfully and constructively engage with a tumultuous and at times unsafe world.  This necessitates scholarly spaces where critical thinking and incisive reasoning knows no bounds but is allowed to flourish unrestricted by who you are or to which social groups you might belong.  The university works assiduously to create a place where people are physically safe.  However, when confronting challenging ideas, ideas that question your deeply held beliefs, ideas that you might find noxious or offensive (or discovering that others find your deeply held beliefs noxious and offensive!), it is inevitable and appropriate to feel intellectually uncomfortable, even offended.

Creating and sustaining the conditions for such difficult discussions is hard, complex, and highly-charged.  As former UBC President Stephen Toope correctly argued, “a tension exists between our community values of respect for human dignity and the special place of free expression that universities protect.” Statements inciting hatred against identifiable groups, statements judged likely to incite breaches of the peace, and statements of a personal, ad hominem nature are foreign to the intellectual exchanges that strong universities must support and protect.  This is so because such statements are, at root, attempts to stifle or prevent the freedom of expression of others, to dissuade any response or discussion. 

Words can be used as weapons, aimed deliberately in pejorative ways to taint or stain the reputations and authority of others.  Deliberate attempts to create a toxic environment must remain anathema to the practices of the university community.  Freedom of expression rests on the potential of making positive, constructive contributions to the university community.  Speech or artistic expression that harms the proper working conditions of the academic community, by for example using hate to dehumanize certain groups, is speech and expression that cannot be protected or condoned.

UBC policies and practices work to promote the smoothest functioning of this scholarly community.  From our academic freedom declaration, to our statement on a respectful environment, to our policies on harassment and discrimination, there are in place mechanisms intended to ensure that freedom of expression flourishes at UBC.  Most fundamentally those policies and practices recognize the importance of freedom of expression, but they do so in the context of everyone’s fundamental right to  equality.  Freedom of expression does not trump all other rights.  In the university community freedom of expression can only thrive constructively when accompanied by other rights, including the equality rights of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

In all of this we share a collective responsibility.  Each and every one of us has the responsibility to support, safeguard and preserve this central freedom of expression.  Tuum est – it’s up to you!

According to the UBC’s website, this statement was prepared in response to a September 5th letter by Santa J. Ono, the university’s President and Vice-Chancellor to the “UBC Community” (whatever that means).  It is interesting to note that this “freedom of expression” statement does not provide the specific issues or concerns it is intended to respond to.  With a little digging, an archive of that letter may be discovered. 

Santa J. Ono’s October letter stated under the heading “Equity, diversity and inclusion”

I recently met with the Vice Presidents’ Strategic Implementation Committee on Equity and Diversity. I appreciated hearing their perspectives and made my commitment to work directly with them – with the aim of making UBC an even more diverse and inclusive community. To this end, I am asking all members of my Executive to outline steps to enhance a more diverse and inclusive community during this academic year. I cannot emphasize enough that we are committed to providing an environment that is welcoming and safe for every member of the UBC community.

I also want to reaffirm my personal commitment to academic freedom. As I stressed in my message referring to the troubling events in Barcelona, Charlottesville, and elsewhere, all members of our community must work to ensure everybody feels welcome and safe.  UBC fosters a welcoming, open community for discussing and debating all ideas and practices, no matter how complex, contentious, or difficult. The openness and tolerance this demands is a responsibility we all hold.

Our formal UBC statement on academic freedom reads as follows: “Central among these rights is the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seem to them fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.”  This freedom extends to all members of our community.  I will work with Professor Neil Guppy (the Senior Advisor on Academic Freedom) and a small working group, to issue a more comprehensive statement on this in the near future.

It is not clear whether a “statement” about an issue by a university working group constitutes policy language, telegraphed policy language or merely a public relations stunt.  However, it is valuable to trace such statements and their underlying themes.  The UBC statement regarding “freedom of expression”  should, therefore, be understood to be a statement about the relationship of freedom of expression to certain “community” priorities set by the university: equity, diversity and inclusion.

UBC’s statement sets priorities and frames dialogue to establish freedom of expression as secondary to primary community goals.  Any document which begins with scare-mongering assertions which “frame” the statement and ends with a finger-wagging call to collective duties deserves, at minimum, a critical examination at the minimum, does it not?

To aid such an examination, here are a few questions:

  1. Why is this statement not clearly titled as a statement about equity, diversity and inclusion as it was originally described by Ono on September 5th?
  2. Why does the document begin with scare-mongering and end with an invocation of collectivized duty?
  3. Why is it assumed that freedom of expression leads to trampling of freedom and wellbeing?
  4. Does the language of this document provide an opportunity for increased effective communication or, instead, contribute to inflammatory rhetoric?

Further Reading

  1. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/ubc-releases-draft-of-freedom-of-expression-statement-asks-for-feedback/article36897668/
  2. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/globe-editorial-why-an-unabashed-embrace-of-free-speech-is-the-best-option-for-our-universities/article36950250/
  3. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/letters/nov-11-contortion-free-freedoms-plus-other-letters-to-the-editor/article36906809/
  4. http://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/douglas-todd-top-moral-thinkers-defend-free-speech-in-ubc-clash
  5. https://www.ubyssey.ca/culture/free-speech-club/

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