A board member wrote to ask the following question:

 I was curious about one topic that has come up in recent years, your view on the Board’s role (if any) in influencing the balance between protecting students from uncomfortable discussions and speakers (affecting perhaps their mental health) versus encouraging the students and campus to offer exposure to controversial speakers with un-popular points of view for analysis and challenge. (Recent examples would be unpopular US politicians and class discussions of political/social actions in China poorly viewed in the west.)

My Perspective

This is an important and challenging question and one which goes to the heart of the role of universities in Canadian society. I should start by stating my perspective.  I understand the desire to shut down speech that upsets us.  I know that some might say that as a privileged white woman I don’t fully appreciate the damage certain speech can do to the already downtrodden. I accept that.  I believe that my experience as an immigrant from a working-class family and a woman has exposed me to experiences that allow me to have some understanding of the issues. I don’t believe in giving a platform to hate speech or other forms of illegal speech.   I don’t agree with cancel culture.  I like what Aaron Rose has to say (Read the article) about the tactics involved in calling out and cancelling people:

“[I] used to think those tactics created change [but] I was not seeing the true change I desired … We were still sad and mad.  And the bad people were still bad. And everyone was still traumatized … [I want to] create more stories of transformation rather than stories of punishment and excommunication”.

For me this is about how we create positive change.  Pushing ideas underground doesn’t quash them but rather forces them elsewhere.   The best chance we have of progressing lies in giving each other the benefit of our perspectives and this can’t be accomplished if people aren’t allowed to speak even when we find their messages threatening.    Universities are the very places where competing ideas should be debated and discussed, examined, and considered.  Exploring and advancing ideas is central to all academic activity.  This column builds on my personal perspective so if you don’t accept where I’m starting from, you can stop reading now.

Freedom of Expression is to be protected

If you haven’t already read Chapter 3 of Peter McKinnon’s book University Commons Divided, I recommend it as providing excellent context for this question.  While McKinnon doesn’t address the role of the board in protecting freedom of expression, he does assert that universities are not protecting freedom of expression as they should.  He further asserts that this failure “diminish[es] our commons and threatens its vitality”.   He cites the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada who described freedom of expression as “the indispensable condition of nearly every other condition”.  He says that universities should not just value freedom of expression, it should be “the first principle in their missions” (p. 57).  I agree. If you are looking for a great strategic discussion as a board – this is one.

Should there be safe spaces at universities?

We first need to understand what we are talking about when we talk about “safe space”. McKinnon asserts that there are two concepts of “safe space”.  The first concept of safe space has the following elements (I’m building on McKinnon’s thoughts here):

  • Identifiable groups of people who come together voluntarily
  • Shared experience of discrimination or trauma
  • Seeking a space (physical and temporal)
  • Seeking safety to share ideas, experiences
  • Safety is subjective – meaning that the individuals are protected from harassment, discrimination, criticism or judgement and members are allowed to set the rules for how they will be treated in that space.

There is a need for these spaces on our campuses and in society.  As McKinnon writes, “The idea is to legitimize perspectives because they are held, and to reinforce positive self-images in the face of experiences that may have had the opposite effect” (p. 40).  These safe spaces are necessary because people need the support of like-minded and supportive individuals particularly when the views held by others are upsetting.     These safe spaces hopefully provide individuals with the support they need to put their views into the mix.

However, the scope of these safe spaces is limited.  As McKinnon notes,

The problem arises … when it is argued that the safe space must extend outward and into the public domain, along with its protections against interference or intrusion from those who hold different views or whose ways of expressing them may cause unease (p. 40).

In other words, while it is necessary for university members to have safe spaces, the whole campus cannot be a safe space in which university members do not encounter opposing and sometimes upsetting views and opinions.  The Board should understand your university’s position on this assertion.  How is your university striking this balance? This is another great strategic question.

What about hate speech?

Because freedom of expression is such a fundamental freedom, our laws place few limits on it.  Julian Walker has written a good article providing an overview of the limits Canadian law imposes on speech. In addition to hate speech – speech that promotes violence or hatred toward a particular group, he note that, “under the Criminal Code,9 such actions as defamatory libel, counselling suicide, perjury and fraud are prohibited”. (see this article). Universities cannot allow illegal speech. However, there is a whole range of speech that may be offensive, hurtful, frightening, and uncomfortable that does not fall afoul of the law.

What is the board’s role?

 In the first instance, University boards must approach this question in a principled manner. Freedom of expression is fundamental to dialogue and debate and ultimately understanding.  My advice to boards is always that your job is to ensure that there’s a framework in place and to hold the president and the administration to account for implementing that framework in a way that is consistent with the university’s mission, vision and values.  In this instance, the board should play a role in ensuring that there are safe spaces for groups on campus and appropriate mental health and other supports.  The Board must also ensure that freedom of expression on campus is protected.

The Board should understand in advance the President’s approach to matters in which balancing multiple interests is required and the Board should support the President’s exercise of discretion when a difficult decision must be made.  Issues of reputation are of interest to the Board and when decisions are made the university may face criticism from all sides. Take a look at this very recent story about MIT’s decision to cancel a guest lecturer  As such, the board is entitled to ask questions to ensure the soundness of the president’s or the administration’s decision and its consistency with policy, mission, vision and values.  However, decisions about campus speakers are fundamentally operational decisions best left to the purview of the president and those working within the university. Individual board members should remember their obligations to act in the best interests of the university as a whole and all questions should be approached this way. While ensuring that affected stakeholder interests have been considered (through good questioning), individual board members should avoid becoming a representative of any one stakeholder group or championing causes.

Key Takeaways:  On issues of freedom of expression, university boards must be educated to understand the principles and concerns relating to decisions that affect freedom of expression.  Boards must understand your university’s particular approach to freedom of expression issues and ensure that group interests are being addressed, while principles are protected.  It is important to create safe spaces within the university. When the university must make tough decisions, the board, once satisfied that the decision is consistent with policy, mission, vision and values, should support the president/administration.  Wherever your university lands on the decision, it is essential that freedom of expression is protected.