‘Balancing act’: What is the limit of freedom of expression at UBC?

As UBC seeks advice on its draft statement on freedom of expression, where do students, faculty and community groups want it to draw the line when it comes to freedom of expression?

“Freedom of expression must, by definition, include the freedom to offend.”

“Basically, we are free to explore our ideas, even if uncomfortable or unpopular, but we must do so in a professional and respectful way.”

“Students should NEVER feel unsafe at their own place of education. Freedom of expression does not mean giving a platform to people who spread lies and misogyny.”

As of November 30, these are just three examples of feedback from 200 people on UBC’s Freedom of Expression draft statement, according to Senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom Dr. Neil Guppy. However, they are reflective of the different approaches to a question that has become a central issue for many universities, especially following clashes on North American campuses: what should be the boundary for freedom of expression?

In 2014, the University of Chicago issued a statement guaranteeing the freedom to discuss all ideas, regardless of whether it could be deemed “offensive or disagreeable.”

“The University may restrict expression that violates the law, falsely defames a specific individual, constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University,” read the statement.

This stance, now known as the Chicago Principles, has since been adopted by other American universities such as Princeton, Purdue and John Hopkins. Over the summer, a UBC student ran a letter campaign to encourage UBC to adopt these principles and to report “truth or social justice” issues directly to President Santa Ono.

In contrast, in 2016 the University of Toronto issued a reaffirmation of its commitment to both freedom of expression and an “environment of tolerance and mutual respect.”

With the release of its draft statement for public consultation on November 8, UBC has joined this discussion. However, the details surrounding the new statement’s development process are vague. It was only briefly alluded to in Ono’s letter to the community on September 5 and remained unclear until The Globe and Mail reported on the statement being “shelved” on November 7.

While the article quoted Susan Danard, UBC’s director of Public Affairs, who said that the university has found former President Stephen Toope’s message to have “stood the test of time,” the delay in the draft’s release was attributed by Ono to UBC trying to find the best release time.

Thus far, its language indicates a balancing act between maintaining both freedom of expression and the wellbeing of the campus community members. But where do students, faculty and community groups want UBC to draw the line when it comes to freedom of expression?

‘Robust conversation’

UBC is no stranger to these debates. In 2015, former Chair of the Board of Governors John Montalbano was accused of infringing on the academic freedom of Dr. Jennifer Berdahl after she wrote a blog post speculating whether former UBC President Dr. Arvind Gupta had resigned because he lost a “masculinity contest.” While he was found not guilty by an internal fact-finding investigation, Montalbano still resigned from his position on the Board.

In broader terms, alongside existing policies on academic freedom and respectful environment, UBC has previously expressed its stance on this issue via a statement by Toope in 2009. Like the draft statement, Toope’s message argues for freedom of expression — which includes “offensive” speech — unless used as a threat.

"Freedom of speech is the most important right to any individual. Living especially in Canada, a country proud of its freedom, suppression of opinions and thoughts is a crime. People don’t always have to agree, but to be able to grow up to be capable level-headed humans, people need to be able express themselves and see other opinions."

— Comment #34 submitted on UBC's draft statement on freedom of expression

However, UBC was still motivated to deliver another statement on freedom of expression due to the violent protests at Charlottesville and the subsequent messages issued by presidents and chancellors of various universities.

“There were statements written by presidents — at least at [the University of] Michigan — the chancellor at UC Berkeley and probably many, many others,” said Guppy.

“I think that got [UBC President Santa Ono] thinking that, ‘Wow, this is becoming an issue that maybe there should be a statement written about — one that would reinforce UBC’s stance on freedom of expression.’”

At the end of August, the task to create this statement was handed to Guppy, who “cobbled together” the 10-person working group of administrators and faculty members from different departments in order to expand the “level of expertise” and “breadth of opinions” going into the draft.

“Some of them I knew I disagreed with and some of them I knew were kind of closer to where I was,” he said. “I don’t want to suggest that I [was entirely] representative of the university, but I tried to get people from different areas.”

According to Guppy, the initial draft was put together in two weeks before being sent to the student senate caucus and the AMS for feedback.

The revised draft was then sent to Ono on the understanding that there would be further inputs from different groups within UBC, such as the executives and the communications group. Guppy said he was unsure of the details involved in this process.

It wasn’t until the time of The Globe and Mail article that Ono suggested a more public conversation be held on the draft statement, according to Guppy. As a result, the draft was published for community consultation on November 8.

“I heard from the president that, ‘Gee, this is good, but it would be nice if we had a more general conversation because clearly there are issues that need to be balanced in a freedom of expression statement. Some of them you’re stressing this way, some of them you’re stressing that way in this document — let’s get a more robust conversation,’” he said.

Devil in the definitions

There are two main types of comments within the 200 responses to the draft statement: either the statement has sufficiently promoted freedom of expression or it has not gone far enough.

The main criticisms revolve around the sections that place limits on the freedom.

“What constitutes being ‘threatened’, ‘caused distress’, or damaging a person’s ‘wellbeing’ has no significant content or boundaries,” read a statement by philosophy Professor Dr. Paul Russell, which was sent to The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

“A massive wedge is opened up that could be seriously abused.”

Russell further acknowledged that expressions can potentially be hurtful but noted that the law has already covered speech that is slanderous or speech that incites or threatens violence. Instead, he recommended adopting the Chicago Principles, which he deems to offer a “clearer and more reliable” stance on the boundary of free expression.

UBC Free Speech Club President Jordan Schroeder similarly highlighted the need for a more precise definition of hate speech and wellbeing so that people can’t manipulate the boundary, while emphasizing his appreciation for UBC’s statement overall.

“I think some people would ask what the precise definition would be and I think a lot of free speech defenders would have different ideas of what the definition should be,” said Schroeder, who is also a third-year law student.

“I don’t know if I know precisely where the line should be drawn, only that the line should be precise … so people who want to use that definition for their ideological ends, they can’t just stretch the word out to suit their purposes.”

Guppy responded that while the definitions are being drawn from human rights legislation and supreme court judgements, the working group is only writing an “aspirational statement” instead of a “15-page academic paper.”

He further pointed out that there is a desire for a brief statement, which puts constraints on how much clarity can be added through definitions or examples.

"Too many words. Cut it to about 200 high-impact words, and then you'll have something worth reading."

— Comment #98 submitted on UBC's draft statement on freedom of expression

Currently, the tangible boundary is set by UBC’s academic freedom statement, which protects free and lawful expression for members from the campus community and also those who are invited to the university. For situations where there might be concerns about security risks, the final judgement will be decided by the RCMP, according to Guppy.

“There is to my knowledge no mechanism on campus or any group that sort of vets applications for any of our buildings … there is not a ‘no platform’ policy in place that says ‘right, here are the kinds of groups that we’re going to exclude,’” he said.

Equal access

In contrast, there were not as many responses that discuss freedom of expression from a social justice point of view, according to Guppy.

Those who did bring up social justice seemed to agree with the spirit of the draft statement, but also noted that more could still be done to support equal access to freedom of expression.

“I think that [the statement is] a very good idea, but I think that there also needs to be a common understanding that it’s supposed to be collaborative … as opposed to creating a more hostile environment,” said Myka Kollman, president of the UBC Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice Student Association. According to her, other members of the association also share this view.

“In encouraging more open discussion, especially on difficult topics, I think that there also needs to be an increase of support for student’s wellbeing during these discussions and outside of them.”

Kollman suggested more mental health services to reduce the wait time for community members.

" ... This was depressing to read. I am sorry because I suspect a lot of effort went into [the draft statement], and I want to acknowledge that. And the fact that we start with all ideas being okay to explore and then only later move onto toxic forms of speech says a lot for who and what ideas we're trying to protect with this."

— Comment #14 submitted on UBC's draft statement on freedom of expression

For Dr. Mark Harris, a visiting associate gender, race, sexuality and social justice professor, the statement can do more to define hate speech in order to denounce it.

“I think it really needs to be enunciated and stated … the freedom of speech doesn’t equate to a carte blanche for statements of violence and hate,” Harris said. “It’s at odds with the very crucial part of freedom of speech.”

He also discussed freedom of expression in relations to power and privilege — an area that could still be explored by UBC in its statement.

“In respect to the commitment to First Nations and the recent Dalhousie incident, it seems strange to me that the group that often most strongly call for freedom of speech enjoys all the privilege and all the rights that are part of the charter and being [a] Canadian citizen,” Harris said.

The Dalhousie incident mentioned by Harris involved a student politician — Masuma Khan — facing an official complaint for speaking out against her peers’ celebration of Canada 150 and making a Facebook comment about ‘white fragility.’

“Paradoxically, the other groups are the target of their attacks, so I believe there isn’t equity.”

'Balancing act'

Currently, the working group is soliciting responses to the community feedback itself until December 8. Guppy also expects that there will be a more concrete draft that is meant to represent UBC’s stance instead of just a “conversational” piece before the winter break.

To do that, they will have to attempt to reconcile the different and often contradicting viewpoints and priorities that were laid out in the feedback.

“It would be easy to write a statement at 90,000 feet: ‘freedom of expression is a good thing … and we promote it as strongly as we can at the university,’” said Guppy.

“My personal thinking is we want it to be a little lower than that, but the more you move it down, the much more difficult it is to be able to balance freedom of expression as an end [and] freedom of expression as a means to an end … As an end, we’re at 90,000 feet — as a means to an end, we’re getting down closer to the ground and to reality.”

Political science Professor Dr. Richard Price, whose class on ethics in world politics was chosen to discuss the draft statement, recommended establishing general guidelines as the path moving forward instead of a strict set of rules.

“It’s hard because it’s one of those things — we actually discussed this in class — that to try and pin down with exactitude and law is very tricky,” he said. “I think the best you can do is lay out the standards.

“If there are clear standards for what goes beyond … you can put those signposts [up] but you are not going to be able to resolve all of them so there are always interpretations involved.”

Price also highlighted the role of the community in fine-tuning this process.

“That’s where I think the practices of the university community — the instructors, the staff, the students, the alumni — are all important because it’s an ongoing practice to getting it right,” he said.

“And one of the things I’m struck by is how well and how often our students get it right.”

‘Aspirational statement’

Overall, it should be noted that for all the consultation UBC has done, the effects of the draft statement will not have the same tangibility as that of a policy.

“It’s not [a] university policy, it’s not Senate approved, it’s not Board approved,” Guppy said. “It’s a kind of aspirational document that as a university, we aspire to promote freedom of expression and everything that that entails.”

Accordingly, he stressed the importance of collective responsibility, where community members should first engage each other in discussion to understand their differences instead of “tweeting at Ono.”

“The intent at least of that statement is to try to say to everybody, ‘This isn’t something that is going to be solved by policies — not something that’s going to be solved by something Senate does or the Board does,’” he said.

“Protection of freedom of expression is a protection that we as a community have to ensure that we do.”