Over the past few years, the debate about freedom of speech on university campuses has increased in intensity. Often sparked by high profile and provocative speakers from outside the academy, this debate has focused on expression rights, whether some groups are granted more privileged expression rights than others, how those rights may be exercised in such a way that harms certain individuals or groups, and whether reactions to certain speakers or events constitute a form of censorship.
Unfortunately, as visible and intense as these discussions have been, they seem to have produced more confusion and frustration than clarity. Is this rooted in the substance of the debate or in its framing? Does inviting a provocative speaker to campus really provide the best test of whether free speech is alive and well at our universities? Does threatening to discipline individuals and cut institutional funding create better speech on campus or silence faculty, students, and staff? How do we foster free speech on campus while maintaining a safe and secure educational environment?
Universities are spaces for rigorous intellectual debate and innovative thinking, but they are also communities of teachers, researchers, administrators, workers, and learners who are all committed to the advancement of knowledge.
These communities are diverse and ever changing. They are spaces where students encounter new ideas, new people, and new socio-political dynamics for the first time. They should be spaces where ideas can be proposed and challenged, but they must also be spaces where all feel comfortable engaging in this discourse.
In this issue of Academic Matters, we intend to take a step back and explore both the substance and shape of this broad debate with the hope of providing a thoughtful and constructive discussion.
How can faculty and other members of the campus community foster a supportive, constructive environment that nurtures an innovative community of thinkers where all are included and feel empowered?
Shannon Dea speaks from personal experience, recounting how the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo responded to a controversial speaker who came to their campus. Indeed, as Michelle Webber and Linda Rose-Krasnor detail, faculty associations play an important role defending the rights of their members and supporting others in the campus community.
What are the some of the legal and political considerations we should have in mind when contemplating discussions about free speech? How might that shape how we respond?
Richard Moon provides insight into the legal landscape upon which this debate rages, and proposes ideas for fostering free and inclusive expression. Examining the provincial directive requiring universities and colleges to develop new free speech policies, James L. Turk asks what these policies will mean for the future of postsecondary education in the province and questions whether these policies are actually even needed.
How can we better understand the ways in which a right to speech does not necessarily translate into an ability to exercise that right, and how do existing academic structures encourage or discourage speech on campus?
David Newhouse offers a thoughtful overview of indigenous perspectives on truth, academic freedom, and tenure, which have only recently started to be meaningfully reflected in academic discourse. Meanwhile, Jasmin Zine provides a compelling argument that, far from providing space for new voices, the free speech debate is actually being used to normalize hate and bigotry and suppress already marginalized voices on campus.
In a special contribution, Andrea Calver discusses her time working with the California Faculty Association in its efforts to mobilize its membership and build a stronger union in the shadow of a recent US law that weakens union rights.
I am so thankful for the fantastic group of astute and insightful individuals who agreed to lend their expertise to this issue. They tackle some very complex questions, the answers to which play an important role in defining the academy. These are questions we will need to continue considering as we work to foster an inclusive educational environment where everyone feels comfortable engaging with new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.
I hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together. As always, we love to hear your thoughts. A reminder that every article in this issue, and many more, are available on our website: AcademicMatters.ca. Thanks for reading.