UPDATED: Lawyer suggests that no formal complaint was made in Shepherd incident
A polarizing debate between freedom of expression and human rights has enveloped the Wilfrid Laurier University’s Waterloo campus.
The debate stems from a situation surrounding Laurier teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd who showed a TVO clip of Jordan Peterson in her first-year communications tutorial.
The clip spoke to the validity of pronouns, specifically, the use of ‘they’ in the singular. Shepherd was told that either a student or students had come forth with a complaint about her tutorial, the number of students and the exact complaint was kept confidential.
Afterwards, Shepherd was called into a meeting with three individuals from Laurier in which she was condemned for presenting Peterson’s views from a neutral stance. After Shepherd took her story and a secret recording of the disciplinary meeting to the media, her situation has gone viral. For a detailed timeline on the incident, click here.
As a result, Laurier has created a task force in order to explore issues surrounding freedom of expression.
In correspondence, Laurier has also hired a third-party fact finder to compile a report for Deborah MacLatchy, president of Laurier, based on the concerns raised by a student(s) and the subsequent meeting which took place.
On Nov. 23, Laurier released a statement announcing that Rob Centa, a partner at Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP, will be conducting the fact-finding process.
“Centa will gather facts related to these events and provide recommendations to the president. This process will start next week and will be completed as soon as possible. Because of the personnel matters involved, the results of the review will be confidential. The university is committed to acting on the recommendations that come out of the report,” the statement read.
Laurier has said that the results of the fact-finding process will remain confidential due to personnel matters.
As a result, Shepherd has also retained a lawyer in order to protect her interests legally throughout this process.
Howard Levitt, a Toronto-based employment lawyer, was hired by Shepherd approximately a week ago.
Ever since, new information regarding the fact-finding process has surfaced. According to Levitt, he was approached by various faculty members who are in support of Shepherd’s situation after he conducted an interview with Global News.
In the interview, which was aired on Nov. 21, Levitt criticized Laurier’s response to Shepherd’s situation. Levitt said that Laurier “should be so fundamentally embarrassed by its policies and its conduct.”
According to Levitt, he was approached after the interview by various faculty members, who are in support of Shepherd’s situation, who wished to thank him.
As a result, he reached out to Shepherd and offered his services to her.
Levitt contacted Centa to inquire about the complaint which was filed against Shepherd. However, Centa’s response indicates there may be no formal complaint at all.
“You asked for a copy of the complaint or complaints filed against your client. At this point in my investigation, I do not believe there is a document that contains a ‘complaint’ made about Ms. Shepherd nor is there anything I would describe as a formal complaint under any WLU policy,” wrote Centa to Levitt.
However, Centa also allegedly indicated to Levitt that his investigation was surrounding employment based matters, an important detail which Levitt says was left out of Laurier’s original mandate.
“I thought it was supposed to be an inquiry into the intersection between free speech and its impact on effected individuals,” Levitt said.
“It’s interesting, the university published the very same mandate without the words ‘employment related matters.’ When [Centa] wrote to me, he put the words ‘employment related matters’ about the same mandate.”
As a result, Levitt reached out to MacLatchy in order to find clarity on the true nature of the fact-finding procedure; however, he was contacted in response by Shereen Rowe who iterated that she was the general counsel who would be representing the university. It is uncertain as to whether or not Levitt will hear from MacLatchy or if he will have to continue to speak to Rowe. Levitt, however, was confident that there are currently no grounds to terminate Shepherd from her position as teaching assistant.
“There are absolutely no grounds for termination. There’s grounds for promotion,” he said.
In fact, Levitt believes Laurier has breached three of their procedural protections in their gendered violence policy.
“It’s a total violation of their own processes. When you look at their processes and their material it says that she should have been informed in advance before that disciplinary meetings to consider its impact and other processes such as civil proceedings, such as occupational heath and safety act proceedings for harassment, well they didn’t inform her of that,” Levitt said.
“They said they have to inform her and encourage her to seek further advice — they did not encourage her or even suggest further advice. And they had to advise her of the right to be accompanied by an advocate at the session; they did not give her any opportunity or advice that she might have an advocate.”
Levitt’s critique of the university’s censorship of Shepherd’s tutorial also stems from details which exist in the Wilfrid Laurier University Act.
“Look at article 4, purpose. It says the purpose of Wilfrid Laurier University is learning through scholarship, teaching and research with a spirit of free inquiry and free expression,” Levitt said.
“That’s the purpose, which means at law, the university can only spend money for that purpose — free expression. And that’s exactly what’s being suppressed.”
It is currently unknown what type of action Shepherd intends on taking or if she will be taking action at all.
Dec. 11 update:
In an email statement, Kevin Crowley, director of communications and public affairs at Laurier, said that Laurier would not have any statements to provide until the Centa has completed his fact-finding report.
“Laurier has engaged an independent fact-finder to establish the facts of the situation. We will need to receive his report before we comment on its findings. President Deborah MacLatchy made an unqualified apology to Lindsay Shepherd on Nov. 21. There is no assumption on the part of the university that Ms. Shepherd did anything wrong. All of the people at the meeting in question were and are employees of the university. Consequently, the independent fact-finding review relates to employment and personnel matters. Again, we need to let the fact-finder complete his work before commenting further,” the statement read.
The Cord reached out to Centa however he stated that, given his mandate, he would not be making any further comments.
Dec. 17 update:
In an email to Levitt, Shepherd’s lawyer, Centa stated that he does not believe there was a formal document or complaint filed against Shepherd’s tutorial.
According to Maclean’s Magazine, a student administrator from the WLU Rainbow Centre allegedly said that the complaint was originally made through the WLU Rainbow Centre.
“Toby Finlay, an administrator at the Rainbow Centre, wouldn’t share the specifics of the conversation due to confidentiality reasons, but adds: ‘It was through us that they made the complaint that led to the situation that blew up in the media,’” as reported by Macleans.
The Cord reached out to the WLU Rainbow Centre for further confirmation but they could not give any comments at the time.