Task Force holds town hall meeting to discuss Draft Statement of Freedom of Expression

At 10 a.m. this morning, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Task Force on Freedom of Expression held a town hall meeting where members of the community were encouraged to present questions, comments and feedback statements.

The meeting, which was held in the Senate & Board chamber on Laurier’s Waterloo campus, began with a presentation by Rob Gordon, vice-president: research and acting provost, the chair of the Task Force on Freedom of Expression. Throughout his presentation, Gordon outlined the goals of the Task Force on Freedom of Expression as well as a proposed timeline for the final draft to be approved by senate: May 19, 2018.

In addition to detailing the work of the Task Force, Gordon listed off a number of experts involved in the consultation process, including the following: Jame Turk, Sigar R. Ben Porath, Paul Axelrod, Richard Moon, Dr. Bruce Party, James Kitchen and Neil Guppy.

The group also has upcoming consultations scheduled with Nandini Ramanujam and R. Peter MacKinnon, the former being a law professor at McGill and the latter being the former president of the University of Saskatchewan.

After Gordon finished his introduction on the Task Force, the floor opened up to questions and comments from the community, a number of which were critical of the current Draft Statement on Freedom of Expression.

One person in particular, who declined a request for comment from The Cord, charged the Task Force with accusations of white supremacy, alleging that: “The document you have produced upholds white suprema[y].” This comment seemed to set the tone for the Q&A portion of the meeting, but the Task Force was quick to shut down such accusations.

“How dare you call me a white supremacist,” a member of the Task Force said in response. This rebuttal was met with a round of applause from the audience.

Other’s who confronted the Task Force included members of faculty as well as coordinators/administrators of the WLU Rainbow Centre, some of whom noted their own personal lack of involvement in the Draft Statement process, as well as the burden they have had to bear with respect to providing a support space on campus.

“The [WLU] Rainbow Centre was never given an opportunity even to give feedback. We weren’t listed, and no one from the Diversity & Equity Office (DEO), was listed as a member of the task force and we weren’t even listed as a key resource that the task force can consult. Nor was any profs or folks on campus who do DEO work,” Toby Finlay, administrator for the WLU Rainbow Centre claimed.

“They’ve told us numerous times that we would be given opportunities … as the Rainbow Centre, [to] have consultations with the task force that [were] in a safe environment … that never came to fruition at all.”

With respect to providing student support on campus, as mentioned in the Draft Statement, Finlay described a lack of resources being delegated to the support networks that are currently in place.

“The piece around supports within this statement is incredibly lacking,” Finlay said. “Supports have included three people across both of Laurier’s campuses  one of whom is myself who is a student and has experienced an immense amount of violence  and I’ve had to side line all of that in order to try to uphold my community through incredible amounts of violence.”

“So I think supports are deeply lacking and really need to change if this is not just going to be a statement that perpetuates the violence and harm of marginalized people and ultimately leads to negative outcomes for folks,” Finlay said.

Evidently, the question period was marred by the voices of those who felt a lack of representation on the Task Force. While many acknowledged the intentions of the Task Force to be coming from the right place, a number still expressed that they felt there was a lack of proposed action or work being done for those in marginalized groups who are directly impacted by the debate surrounding free speech.

The debate seemed to reach a head after a member of the Task Force, Laurier professor David Haskell, described those with socially conservative values as “the most marginalized group” on university campuses today. This statement was met with a loud interruption from an audience member: “You are a terrible person!”

Chair of the Task Force, Rob Gordon, spoke with The Cord about the importance of the issue at hand and the success of today’s town hall meeting

“We were certainly expecting to get some really useful feedback and I think we got that today,” he said. “What I heard a lot of today was less about the context of the statement and more about how the university [will] embrace this.”

“I heard it loud and clear and I think my colleagues did as well,” Gordon said. “Our university is prepared to make sure that we fully support this statement with the effective resources to make sure action happens.”

Gordon said that the next step for the Task Force will be to take the considerations mentioned during today’s town hall meeting, as well as the feedback collected online, and create a new Draft Statement that balances those considerations and attempts to improve upon them.

Gordon also encouraged community members to join in on the process.

“We’re trying to create a process here as part of the statement development that actually is inclusive of the entire community,” he said.

“So the Rainbow Centre, and other organizations within our university, we fully invite them to participate through online [submission], or even to personally contact any of the task force members for followup discussions or considerations,” he added.

“This is an important process for our university and certainly there’s strong opinions across the board in terms of statements of freedom of expression; we got a little bit about that today,” Gordon said.

“But this is a way for our university to get better and our desire is that our statement reflects our university’s commitment to creating an environment that is focused on academic excellence but is also inclusive. We’re doing our best to achieve those as effectively as we can.”

 This story was written with files from Safina Husein.

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