‘More aspirational and educational’: UBC publishes official statement on freedom of expression

UBC published its Freedom of Expression statement in early June, finalizing a 10-month initiative that has seen wide engagement on what should be the balance between the freedom and the wellbeing of the campus community.

While it is intended to be an ‘aspirational’ instead of concrete policy, the statement has garnered significant interest as the debate around free speech on college campuses continues.

The initiative was first started at the end of August 2017, after UBC President Santa Ono handed the task to Dr. Neil Guppy, senior advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom, and his initially 10-person working group.

But little was known about it until The Globe and Mail reported on November 7, 2017 that the statement was being “shelved.” The following day, UBC published the draft statement for community feedback, with Ono attributing this timing to the university looking for the best release time instead.

The final statement came after a month-long community consultation on the draft statement, which received around 200 individual responses and other forms of written feedback. Guppy also moderated a town hall meeting in January 2018 with University of Windsor law Professor Richard Moon, an expert on freedom of expression.

The Charter, inclusion and academic freedom

After going through the feedback, the working group landed on three main discussion points.

One focused on the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s language and how it might relate to UBC. While the Charter doesn’t explicitly apply to universities, the working group looked at it as “almost a rhetorical device” to show their commitment to its core values.

“We were using Charter values in a way to say issues of freedom of expression, assembly, religion and discrimination issue are all in the Charter, so it’s a reasonable expression of Canadian values,” said Guppy. “… That did get us into a legal discussion, and there was some back and forth of trying to ensure that we were being fair to the legal opinion.”

The second discussion revolved around the value of inclusion and its placement in the statement. While the draft statement brings it up in the very first paragraph, the final version introduces it later to avoid the perception that the focus on freedom of expression is “watered down.”

“I personally feel that some people misunderstood the first draft statement, perhaps, because we had inclusion way up at the front and the sense that somehow we weren’t saying freedom of expression was a central value to the university — that it was somehow getting watered down by having inclusion language too much upfront,” said Guppy.

The third point touched on academic freedom, which was sparsely discussed in the draft statement. The final statement, however, fleshes out the difference between academic freedom and general freedom of expression.

“The reason for [academic freedom being mainly out of the draft] is we didn’t want to confuse freedom of expression and academic freedom by putting those two jointly,” said Guppy.

“We now got [academic freedom] in this version and in a more nuanced way to say that ‘Look, there are constraints on academic freedom here and it’s important to understand what those are, and there are constraints on freedom of expression and it’s important to understand what those are’ and using those almost as a foil for one another.”

Overall, the version incorporating all of these elements — which is “99 per cent identical” to the published version, according to Guppy — was sent to the President’s Office in late April. But it was not published until June to fine-tune the statement in accordance with feedback from the office and answer logistical questions like which website to publish on.

Personnel change

The working group itself also underwent some changes, with the departure of three faculty members and the arrival of two new ones prior to the final draft.

“After the events of the fall I did not feel in good conscience I could devote more time to the project,” said philosophy Professor Alan Richardson in a message to The Ubyssey, referring to the Globe and Mail report of statement being “shelved” and the subsequent “long, complicated process of consultation.”

Philosophy Professor Michael Griffin attributed his departure to his research sabbatical in the second winter term, and Sauder Professor Karl Aquino did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The two new faculty members include Assistant Professor Mary Liston from the Allard School of Law and Associate Professor Michael Treschow from UBC Okanagan’s faculty of creative and critical studies. While there wasn’t a formal invitation process, the choices were based on the different perspectives that the new members could bring.

“Michael Treschow has been on the Board of Governors, and it made sense that we have someone from the Okanagan so we asked him to join,” said Guppy.

“Mary Liston from law because several people through the consultation process told us that you ought to have an actual lawyer on the group. ... I went to a number of people that I knew from the law school, but they were busy and Mary thankfully volunteered.”

“Same problems and limitations”

According to Guppy, there have been limited responses to the final statement’s release as of June 18.

But this does not mean that it is without flaws, particularly from the perspective of those who are interested in freedom of expression issues. A concern that has been raised for both the draft and final statements is around their discussion on the freedom’s limits.

Philosophy Professor Paul Russell — whose criticism of the draft statement was featured in a Globe and Mail column — said his perception has not changed.

“It contains most of the same problems and limitations,” reads Russell’s comment on the final statement. “Under the guise of defending free speech this document continues to emphasize the need for ‘balance’ and ‘constraints’ based on other concerns and interests.”

His comment then argues that the statement needs to have more clarity, such as around “what freedom of expression involves and what sort of activities and actions violate or constrain it.”

Student groups like the Free Speech Club (FSC) and the recently-formed Students for Freedom of Expression (SFE) also shared the concern about the vagueness of certain parts of the statement, but diverged on their overall perception of it.

“The new statement is a positive step to protect freedom of expression at UBC,” said FSC President Noah Alter in a message to The Ubyssey.

But he finds a part that discusses the balance between the freedom and the protection of disadvantaged community members “extremely vague.”

“The second last paragraph reads ‘[freedom] of expression must never be abused or used to disadvantage members of our community who enjoy less power.’ Many members have commented that this line is extremely vague, and rightfully so. This sentence was likely intended to focus on cases of extreme prejudice, but this is often a difficult line to draw.”

SFE Vice-President Mo Kiani also views the final statement as an improvement, but agrees with Russell’s criticisms as he called it “really an empty statement.” He also believes that despite the statement not being a university policy, it still has influence over policy interpretation.

“Something like [the statement] is not beyond interpretation of policy and even if it is, we put so much effort into building it in the first place — obviously it has some sort of social importance to campus,” Kiani said.

“… It not being explicitly relevant to policy doesn’t make me feel better.”

Power imbalance

Sentiments about the statement’s weakness are echoed by students in social justice organizations — albeit for different reasons.

“I think what the freedom of expression statement kind of does is it teeters around not offending anyone, so it’s a very put together statement that basically is meant to be moot in the end,” said Kirsten Tarasoff, Arts Undergraduate Society representative for the Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice Undergraduate Association (GRSJUA).

“When we talk about freedom of expression, it’s also equality of whose voice we grant that authority to speak so I know that some people’s voices are taken as more legitimate and some people’s experiences are taken as more valid.”

To address these imbalances, Tarasoff suggested that UBC go beyond inviting only prominent keynote speakers to “centering voices that are not heard all the time.”

“People of colour, Aboriginal people, LGBTQ people — in general, there are a lot of really great works by these academics and it’s something that UBC as a platform would invite them to say more, as opposed to just really prominent keynote speakers,” she said.

“They are saying really great and knowledgeable things but they aren’t necessarily pushing the limits of what freedom of speech and what can be said to a large audience. ... I think if we move into academia, I think that’s where we can have more calm and well researched conversation.”

This also means not only listening, but also acting on the feedback from conversations.

“If they are critical of institutions like UBC, it’s important for UBC to take what they are saying and implement [them],” said said GRSJUA President Chelsea Bean. “It’s one thing to let people talk but also take action on what you learn is important as well.”

Ultimately, Guppy hopes that the statement will serve as a “more aspirational and educational” text for UBC community members.

“We are members of a community and what does that community actually articulate as a set of values and that in a sense what this document does,” he said. “Freedom of expression is relational concept — it’s not just you talking in silence, you’re expressing something to a larger audience and there’s a certain responsibility that comes with that. That’s kind of behind what’s in this document.”