By David Watson, Opinion Editor -- October 24, 2016
(Domi Biehlmann / McGill Tribune)

“Something strange is happening at America's colleges and universities.” So began the provocative cover story of The Atlantic's September 2015 issue. The piece, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, dove head-on into a relatively recent, yet highly contentious, debate gripping American campuses—that of campus free speech.

What strange phenomenon had Lukianoff and Haidt identified? “A movement is arising,” they claimed, “undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

According to the duo—a constitutional lawyer and a social psychologist—students at campuses across the United States were increasingly calling for censorship surrounding topics that are likely to cause offence, and therefore emotional distress, to some students.

In the year since The Atlantic story ran, the debate over controversial speech on campuses has only intensified. At Yale, students called on two faculty members to resign after one sent an email to students questioning the need for a warning about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. Emory University was divided in the spring after pro-Trump messages were chalked on campus. This September, students at the University of Chicago expressed outrage after their Dean of Students wrote in a welcome letter that his institution's commitment to academic freedom meant it opposed safe spaces and trigger warnings.

In each case, the debate is seemingly polarized between two camps. On one side are those arguing that universities need to prioritize the feelings and experiences of students, and rid campuses of offensive expression that could threaten students' emotional well-being. Opposing them are those who claim that freedom of expression is essential to preserve the university's role as an intellectual space of discussion and open debate.

Yet debates about safe spaces and free speech on American campuses tend to limit themselves in one key aspect: They are, after all, debates about how these issues effect American campuses. If it is true that, as Lukianoff and Haidt claimed, there is something strange afoot at “America's colleges and universities,” is this because there is something unique about American universities, or is it the result of a wider trend in higher education?

Recent events at Canadian universities seem to indicate that there is nothing distinctly American about the debate over campus speech. At McGill, the past year has been a relatively quiet one, but other Canadian schools have had a very different experience. Most notably, the University of Toronto has been embroiled in a lengthy debate over free speech after a professor refused to call transgender students by their preferred personal pronouns.

U of T Rally for Free Speech (Steven Lee / The Varsity)

With the brewing climate of debate over free speech at North American campuses, administrators at McGill are starting to take notice.

“I think these are important discussions with our community because our students are adults, and very smart adults,” said McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier during a recent question and answer session with campus media. “And so we always have to respect that there are people who are able to take responsibilities on our campus [....] I think there is a fine line here of over-protection, which I don’t think is really always a good idea. I don’t think it’s a good move all the time.”

Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Dr. Ollivier Dyens offers an explanation as to why he believes McGill's campus has seen relatively little conflict.

“I think there is no policy on trigger warnings at McGill and I think that’s something that professors are free to do or [not do] of their own volition. Whether they do or not I think that’s part of academic freedom. There has been no discussion on this at McGill because I think overall [...] we are less exposed to this than U.S. institutions [....] I think the community seems to respect each other and understand some of the tension that can exist. It does not seem to be unnecessarily aggressive with these things.”

While the university does not have an official policy regarding trigger warnings in the classroom, it is not unheard of for some professors to issue a warning about their course material. Selin Altuntur, U3 Arts student and Arts and Entertainment Editor at The McGill Tribune, spoke about an experience she had in IDFC 500: Aboriginal Field Studies.

“In the first class, we were told that the course would be dealing with sensitive matters and emotionally disturbing realities about residential schools and growing up [as an indigenous person] in Canada,” she said. “[We were also warned] before we covered any material that dealt with difficult subject matter. For example, we saw a documentary depicting residential school life and before [watching the documentary the course coordinators] warned us and told us that if we couldn’t handle it or if we needed to [...] take a break and have a moment, we were completely within our rights to step outside the class.”

Rather than feeling overprotected, Altuntur was grateful for the warning.

“I thought it was [beneficial],” she said. “I’ve never experienced [a content warning] in a class before, but I’d had also never dealt with such intense material before [....] I didn’t really know that I would be dealing with such heavy material beforehand, so it was good to have that kind of briefing before going into [the content], so that [students] would not suffer a whiplash as a result.”

However, classrooms are not the only places where steps are taken to ensure the emotional safety of the McGill community. According to Dyens, the respect he perceives as existing amongst the student body is rooted in the training students receive through initiatives such as Rez Project, which teaches first years how to create a “Safe(r) Space” in their residences.

“We do training in residence, there is a lot of training that is happening when students come in to McGill,” said Dyens. “Montreal students come from varied backgrounds, so they’re used to this.”

Taylor Welch is a U3 Arts student and Floor Fellow at La Citadelle who has been involved with McGill Rez Life, including Rez Project workshops, for the past three years. She greatly values the lessons she learned through Rez Project and residence living in general.

“Prior to attending McGill and undergoing the Rez Project workshop in my first year, I had not been exposed to the idea of safe(r) spaces, and I really think that is a shame,” she wrote in an email to the Tribune. “We as university students are incredibly fortunate to receive this kind of additional, and formative education [....] This is very much an on-going conversation, and rather than asking ourselves, ‘Why is it that we can’t say whatever we like?’ we should be asking, ‘Why do we feel that we can say these potentially harmful things in the first place?' And further, why do we need to say these things at all?"

Some outside observers do not share an optimistic view of the situation at McGill. Every year the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), an independent research group, releases a report detailing the state of free expression at over 50 Canadian universities. Its 2015 report gave McGill a middling ranking, awarding the university a 'D' for policies and a 'C' for practices relating to free speech. Its ranking for the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) was even worse: It earned 'D's across the board for policy and practices.

The JCCF argues that McGill has a number of policies that “could be used to censor unpopular, controversial, or politically incorrect speech.” McGill’s Statement of Principles Concerning Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, for instance, states that students’ freedom of expression is “subject to limits” in order to safeguard “the right of members of the University community to carry out their activities [...] in a safe environment.” For the JCCF, this caveat presents a potential danger to free speech at McGill. The JCCF also condemns the practices and policies of SSMU, and holds McGill accountable for having “failed to condemn censorship by its student union.”

In the past few years, McGill has witnessed a series of incidents where students’ speech has been restricted. For instance, in 2012 SSMU executive called for the McGill Friends of Israel (MFI) to change the name of its event “Israel A-Party”— organized to counter-message the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week who claim that Israel is an apartheid state—because SSMU executives considered it “a mockery and/or trivialization of various oppressions some people of the world are subject to on a day-to-day basis.” The SSMU execs based their decision on the Society’s Equity Policy, which requires SSMU to make “a strong commitment to equity, safety, and the creation of safe(r) spaces for its membership.”

In October 2013, the campus was home to the so-called “Farnangate” scandal, after then-SSMU Vice-President Internal Brian Farnan attached to a weekly SSMU listserv a doctored gif of President Obama kicking open a door with the caption, “Honestly midterms get out of here.” The SSMU Equity committee received a complaint that the gif was offensive, and ordered Farnan to apologize and undergo racial sensitivity training.

(Noah Sutton / The McGill Tribune)

Despite this, many of the campus organizations criticized by the JCCF view their role on campus in a very different way. The SSMU Equity Policy contains a clause mandating, “Neither this Policy in general, nor its definitions in particular, are to be applied in such a way as to detract from the right of members to engage in open discussion of potentially controversial matters.”

Similarly, the McGill Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office states that the goal of its Safe(r) Space workshops are to provide “interactive and engaging learning environments where participants and facilitators address challenging topics openly and honestly.”

Some members of the McGill community are aware of this goal. Welch believes that those who criticize safe spaces as restrictive are misunderstanding their purpose.

“I think what people sometimes misunderstand is that safer spaces are in no way designed with the intention of silencing anyone [...],” Welch wrote. “It is through these platforms of education that the goal is to provide people with the tools to understand further, and articulate why certain acts of speech or harmful thoughts and actions cannot only make people feel uncomfortable, but unsafe.”

According to Welch, freedom of speech also has the potential to be exploited.

”No one likes to feel belittled or silenced, but I think that the concept of freedom of speech can be, and often is, abused; frequently at the hand of those who are privileged and are likely more benefitted by free speech rather than harmed by it.”

The conversation on freedom of speech and safe spaces at McGill bears some important resemblances to the wider trend on North American campuses. First, the movement for a safer campus is driven largely by the students themselves. At Yale, Emory, and the University of Toronto, complaints against those voicing unpopular opinions all came from the student body; this has also been the case with past incidents at McGill. The recent incidents, like Farnangate and the MFI event naming, prove that similar to other schools, student speech—which range from seemingly innocuous gifs to politically-charged event names—can be subject to censure if deemed offensive by even a small minority on campus. However, McGill’s community also gives this issue a unique spin: Administrators are confident the school’s diversity can be an asset, and student groups such as SSMU recognize the importance of tempering demands for a safe environment with the need to protect the speech of students. As the backbone of the university community, students and their ideas are crucial to preserve an engaging intellectual environment. It is essential that all voices on campus continue to be heard.