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Take a Stand for Academic Freedom

I wrote this piece after reading an article in my school newspaper which addressed the controversy surrounding Lindsay Shepherd—a TA at Wilfred Laurier University who was harshly reprimanded by school administration for showing a Jordan Peterson debate clip in class to teach about communication bubbles. In the article I read, the author mistakenly suggests that censorship of certain opinions or ideas is good or necessary in the classroom and that such censorship causes some clamour because it is seen as an infringement of freedom of speech. However, classroom censorship is less an infringement on freedom of speech as it is an infringement on the free flow and exchange of ideas that should be an integral part of an academic environment. Policy that obstructs this open marketplace of ideas (as it did in the case of Lindsay Shepherd) by censoring speech has no place in a university.


For fellow students or members of academia who think censorship should be used as a tool to hush ideas that a university deems “harmful”: Do we want an administration to decide for us what opinions we are or aren’t permitted to talk about, debate, and agree or disagree with? Are our minds so fragile that we need an institution to protect us from hearing opinions that may contradict those we currently espouse? I was appalled to read in the article which prompted me to write this response that the author claimed that “it is the responsibility of the university to ensure the crippling discomfort [caused to the student who complained about the video Lindsay Shepherd showed] does not happen again.” Are we so entitled to the comfort of having our opinions unchallenged that we decide it’s the university’s responsibility to ensure that this comfort is not interrupted by our exposure to controversial opinions?


I argue that it is not at all the responsibility of a university to make you comfortable. It is the responsibility of a university to educate you (who would have thought that this would be a controversial opinion? —2017 is weird). Believe it or not: no matter how entitled you may think you are to not be offended, the world is not responsible to cater to your delicate feelings either.
It certainly is the university’s prerogative to decide what material students are taught in the classroom. In this responsibility, the school should try to maintain a balanced approach in the presentation of curriculum and to recognize opinions or arguments which may oppose generally accepted beliefs. Policy that prevents students from receiving education in this way is antithetical to the aim of a university.


The author of the article to which I am responding also argues that undue legitimacy is granted to an opinion if it is suggested that debate over the opinion is worthwhile. It would also appear that the author fears that this undue legitimacy would increase the likelihood that more people adopt such “less-legitimate” opinions. I ask, what makes anybody the intellectual arbiter of which opinions are “less-legitimate” than others? Each of us is capable of judging the ideas that are presented to us. We must have enough faith in truth to allow everyone to accept it of their own free will and choice.
In our pursuit of “whatsoever things are true” (my university’s motto) we must be prepared to allow ideas to be weighed based on their merit. We must remain open-minded enough to be able to hear and discuss opinions with which we may not agree. We must be prepared to defend this exchange of ideas against any policy or person who would restrict it—even if it seems that the policy or person has good intentions.

 

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John Wetterstrand

John is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics at the University of Alberta. He is co-founder and president of Advocates of Freedom—a campus club which promotes free speech, free markets, and individual liberties. He is from Alberta, Canada.

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