The saga of Lindsay Shepherd finally appears to be drawing to a close. Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, has been at the forefront of recent debates about free expression and academic freedom on campus. Shepherd received international attention after committing an apparently inexcusable crime: while teaching her tutorial, Shepherd displayed a controversial segment from a TVO program featuring University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson discussing the use of gender neutral pronouns. Shepherd was subject to a disciplinary a meeting with three university officials, who spuriously compared the video to one of Adolf Hitler and accused Shepherd of committing gendered violence. Although Shepherd was ultimately exonerated of all wrongdoing by the university, this entire episode occurred despite the fact that there was not a single student complaint levied against her.
The subsequent firestorm at Laurier — and on social media — certainly perplexed many observers who were rightly confused how showing a video from the same broadcaster who shows Pingu every morning could result in a breakdown in all social cohesion. However, this episode comes as no surprise to keen observers of university campuses. The Shepherd incident highlights the intersection of many issues that have recently been under scrutiny on campus. As the dust settles at Laurier, the cause of this specific incident is clear. This was a case of gross administrative and professorial overreach into an academic arena. Three university employees appeared to fabricate a complaint against Shepherd in order to silence a particular viewpoint. This behaviour should offend everyone regardless of political ideology, and the university officials should be reprimanded.
Although this incident did not occur at Western, it easily could have. Western’s academic and administrative leaders should take preventative action and adopt a clear position. The classroom is a place for free discussion of ideas, and only in the most extreme circumstances should classroom discussion be censored. Western should look to the University of Chicago as an example of a leading university that has re-committed itself to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression. The University of Chicago principles state that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.” This is a statement of principles that Western can and should follow. By doing so, the Western community can ensure that we always live up to our motto: Veritas et Utilitas, Truth and Usefulness.
— Matt Helfand, a third-year Faculty of Law student