At the University of Waterloo, a controversial talk had the faculty association looking for creative ways to respond. How did the faculty association avoid the “free speech trap”?

The free speech trap

In April of this year, with just a week’s notice, members of the University of Waterloo learned that a local club, the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry (LSOI) had booked a campus venue for a panel discussion on immigration featuring two prominent white nationalists, Faith Goldy and Ricardo Duchesne.

For many of us, the news set off alarm bells. In the last year or two, white nationalist groups have made well-coordinated efforts to organize events on university campuses in both Canada and the US. It’s a win-win situation for them. When their events happen, their organizations gain the respectability conveyed by association with a university. When their events are refused, canceled, or protested and shut down, it provides fodder for the groups to whip up public sentiment against universities for being “politically correct” (all while garnering more publicity for themselves).

By contrast, it is a lose-lose situation for universities. Either they play host to white nationalists—thereby creating a toxic climate for the Indigenous and racialized members of their campus communities—or they refuse them and get attacked by the media, the public, and donors for not supporting free speech.

As Vice-President of the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW), and as someone who has been intensively researching and writing about academic freedom since January, I was one of the key people involved in deciding what, if anything, FAUW should do about the planned event.

At first, we considered doing nothing. It was the university, not FAUW, that had accepted the booking. Accordingly, it fell to the university, not FAUW, to deal with the event. Besides, we didn’t want to help produce a Streisand effect for the panel.

The Streisand effect is so named because it has its origins in Barbra Streisand’s 2003 attempt to suppress details of the location of her Santa Monica home. Streisand sued to have an aerial image of her home removed from an online website and, in doing so, drew the world’s attention to the fact that the home was actually hers, dramatically increasing visits to the website she was suing. FAUW didn’t want to draw attention to the LSOI event by protesting it. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if white nationalists held an event and no one cared, much less showed up?

However, it quickly became clear that people very much cared about the event, irrespective of whether FAUW did or said anything about it. And the more we thought about it, the more important we thought it was to show the racialized, Indigenous, and new Canadian faculty, staff, students, and alumni who would be most hurt by the event that we had their backs.

A different way of responding to controversy

As a faculty association, we weren’t interested in shutting the event down. Like any faculty association, we represent members with a wide range of views about the scope and limits of free expression on campus. But we wanted to give those faculty members who wished to show their support for the multicultural and Indigenous communities on campus a mechanism for doing so. We wanted to answer the event with something constructive.

After some to-ing and fro-ing, we landed on the idea of creating an online crowd-funding campaign where those who wished to could respond to the planned event by leaving a supportive note and donate funds toward university groups devoted to Indigenous, racialized, and international students.

When creating a crowd-funding page, you have to stipulate a goal for how much money you hope to raise. We had no idea what kind of goal to set. We thought about it for a bit, and then pulled $5,000 out of the air as a nice round number. I quickly created the online campaign and tweeted out a link to it, and then boarded an overnight flight to the UK.

When my plane landed five and a half hours later and I turned on my phone, it vibrated with the dozens of automated messages I had received from the crowd-funding site and Twitter retweets. We had already exceeded our $5,000 goal, and were quickly climbing towards $10,000.

As was widely reported, LSOI canceled the panel within two days of it being announced due to the high security costs the University of Waterloo said would have to be paid by the event’s organizers. Shortly thereafter, FAUW shut down the crowd-funding site, having topped $13,000 in donations. And we had avoided the Streisand effect.

In both the local and the national media, the story that made its way to press was about the enormous support that the University of Waterloo community had shown to non-white members of the university. On conservative media and on the right-wing outskirts of social media there was criticism of the university for levying a steep security fee from LSOI, but—apart from one brief comment from Goldy herself—there were very few complaints against FAUW for launching the crowd-funding campaign.

Things could have gone much worse. Indeed, they have before and will again. The Goldy affair was just one salvo in a larger conflict.

Manufacturing a campus free speech crisis

Since about 2014 in the US and 2016 in Canada, there have been repeated efforts by fringe groups to lay traps for universities by organizing on-campus events featuring speakers calculated to provoke a response—speakers like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos in the US, and like Faith Goldy in Canada. Such rosters guarantee the presence of protestors, and the whole cycle helps to construct the narrative that “snowflake” students are threatening free speech on campus.

There have been repeated efforts by fringe groups to lay traps for universities by organizing on-campus events featuring speakers calculated to provoke a response.

However, as Zack Beauchamp and Matthew Yglesias (among others) have shown, there is little evidence that free speech is in crisis on North American campuses.1 In a recent survey of US undergraduate students, most respondents supported free speech. Of the thousands of speaker invitations issued each year, only a few dozen are protested and, of course, when protests do occur they are themselves instances of free expression.

Nonetheless, in the US, as is well documented by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Goldwater Institute (a conservative and libertarian think tank) has been playing on the narrative of a campus free speech crisis to promote so-called campus free speech legislation in state governments. In Ontario, as the readers of Academic Matters know all too well, the new Progressive Conservative government launched the school year by announcing it would require all Ontario postsecondary institutions to create and enforce free speech policy, with the threat of having their funding cut if they fail to comply.

The AAUP warns that campus free speech legislation is “a solution in search of a problem” since free speech is alive and well on university campuses. Campus free speech legislation is less a defence of free speech than an attack on three core tenets of the modern university: institutional autonomy, collegial governance, and academic freedom. Campus free speech legislation undercuts institutional autonomy and collegial governance by imposing academic policy on universities rather than allowing that policy to emerge from universities’ own academic bodies (like faculty senates).

Strikingly, the new Ontario policy obliges colleges and universities to adopt free speech policies based on the so-called Chicago Principles. The Chicago Principles are a set of principles about freedom of expression created by a University of Chicago ad hoc committee and adopted as a vision statement for that university. They are the product of an elite American private university; they are not the product of collegial governance; and they are not even policy at the University of Chicago. And yet, the Ontario Government wishes to impose them on all postsecondary institutions in the province. What a massive encroachment on institutional autonomy! Not only is the government forcing all institutions to toe the same line, but it is imposing an American document created for a very different sort of institution than we have in Ontario.

The role of collegial governance in advancing academic freedom

It is a fundamental principle of Ontario universities that scholars themselves—by virtue of their roles and qualifications, and because they are not beholden to partisan politics or corporate objectives—are the ones who should dictate the university’s academic operations. This happens through the process of collegial governance. Whether or not to have a free speech policy and the contents of that policy are matters for a university’s senate because these policies are, at heart, academic matters.

Writing for The Conversation, University of Saskatchewan President Emeritus Peter MacKinnon argues that “Freedom of expression is… an ‘indispensable condition’ of the university ‘commons.’… I define this as the space for the debate, discussion and collaboration that are both inherent in, and essential to, the idea of the university.” The language MacKinnon invokes is tightly associated with the academic mission of the university. Yet MacKinnon has little to say about the role collegial governance plays in academic decision making. Moreover, the concept of academic freedom is strangely absent from both MacKinnon’s argument and from broader discussions about who gets to say what on campus and when.

If freedom of expression is an indispensable condition of the university commons, it is because of the university’s scholarly purpose. A university isn’t a town square where anyone has the right to say anything they like. Nor is it a theatre where the actors are obliged to say the same scripted lines over and over and the audience is supposed to remain silent. Rather, the particular expression tied to the university’s academic mission is that which falls under the umbrella of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is the freedom for university members who participate in scholarly fora to freely inquire, research, teach, learn, collect, curate, speak, and disseminate. It is, moreover, the freedom to criticize the university and the freedom to engage in extramural expression. This is a special family of freedoms that goes beyond constitutional protections of free expression. It is the university members’ roles in the university’s central mission of pursuing truth and advancing knowledge that affords them this special class of freedoms.

Academic freedom is the freedom for university members who participate in scholarly fora to freely inquire, research, teach, learn, collect, curate, speak, and disseminate.

Academic freedom is both broader than constitutionally protected freedom of expression, and more focused. It is broader in the sense that it covers not only expression, but also inquiry, methodology, learning, curation, etc. It is more focused in that it is exercised for the purpose of advancing knowledge.

Towards better speech

A reporter recently told me a story about a very senior university administrator who indicated a particular town square and rhetorically wondered why speech should be more limited on campus than in the square. “Why,” he asked, “should we have less expression than the square does?” In my view, this comparison reveals a misunderstanding of what makes universities distinct. Universities contribute to society not by producing more speech, but by producing better speech. Our business is quality, not quantity.

Wilfrid Laurier University President Deborah MacLatchy recently celebrated Laurier’s new Statement on Freedom of Expression with a short media junket in which she argued that “universities should aim at not just free speech but better speech.” In response, some of the usual suspects challenged the notion of better speech. “I wonder who gets to judge what qualifies as ‘better’ speech,” opined William McNally in the National Post, with the implication that such judgment would inevitably reflect political biases.

There is a straightforward answer to this query. What makes speech on campus consistently better than speech from a downtown soapbox is that the former is the product of scholarship. Every single day in every single university lecture hall, well-educated scholars engaged in sincere inquiry disseminate expertise and evidence in service of a slightly better understanding of the world we live in.

This is what makes universities special—not that there are lecterns, but that those who stand at the lecterns bring with them a wealth of knowledge and data. Indeed, they often use those lecterns to share perspectives and theories that are controversial. That is why tenure exists—to permit scholars to say unpopular and impolitic things—not for the mere sake of being impolitic, but with the goal of getting things right, of telling the truth even when it is a hard truth for those in power to hear.

Many free speech advocates who bemoan the current state of universities have more to say about campus debates than they do about other forms of scholarly dissemination, like lectures and publications. They seem to imagine research as proceeding by way of debate, as if the scholarly world were a fantasy football table at which, from an initial set of pairings, we battle until only the champions remain.

Look, I actually agree with those who state that members of the university community should engage in debate, listen to opposing views, and foster dialogue between polarized communities. But we ought not to do so willy-nilly. Our scholarly mission tells us why we should debate controversial topics. That means not just any topics will do.

We debate controversial topics because debates over some controversial topics have led to new discoveries and innovations. We have academic freedom protections precisely because controversial debates have often been crucial to the advancement of knowledge. But we have those debates to advance knowledge, not for the mere sake of having debates. And it is our own highly qualified scholarly community—not unofficial external clubs cynically designed with the aim of sowing controversy—that is best able to judge which difficult, thorny, controversial debates are most likely to lead to the next big scholarly discovery.

FAUW got off lucky in its tangle with LSOI, but we cannot count on luck going forward. As free speech continues to be invoked in a political battle for the most fundamental principles of the university, it is incumbent on professors and administrators to understand what is at stake, and to respond to each new challenge with the scholarly mission of the university as their guiding beacon.

Shannon Dea is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and the Vice-President of the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW). She writes about Academic Freedom on her blog at and for University Affairs. Her remarks here reflect her own perspectives and not those of FAUW.