The big debate on campus: new perspectives on the Laurier scandal

Photo by Tanzeel Sayani


Almost three weeks ago, Lindsay Shepherd, a Laurier graduate student and teaching assistant, was reprimanded for showing a TVO clip of a Jordan Peterson debate within her first year Communications tutorial and then leading a discussion about the use of gendered pronouns, sparking controversy throughout the Wilfrid Laurier University campus and amongst media outlets on an international scale.

Since Shepherd’s situation was publicized, administration at Laurier has been criticized for condemning what Shepherd and others feel is her right to freedom of expression within the classroom while others have criticized their lack of support and inclusivity towards the trans and non-binary community on campus.

As a result of the large scale on which the situation is currently being discussed, two very firm sides of a complex debate have emerged.

On one side of the debate, individuals are fighting to defend freedom of expression on campus. A petition made by William McNally, associate professor of finance at the School of Business and Economics at Laurier, asks that Laurier adopt a freedom of expression policy similar to the one developed by the University of Chicago.

The policy adopted by the University of Chicago, which was first approved in 2015, essentially places freedom of expression above all other values. The principles stress a commitment to allowing students to voice their thoughts and ideas regardless of how offensive they might be to others.

The petition was created approximately two weeks ago and currently holds over 1100 signatures.

On the other side of the debate, individuals are fighting to defend the rights and equality of trans, non-binary and gender diverse students and faculty in the community.

Another petition, made by Greg Bird, assistant professor in sociology, cultural analysis and social theory, works to establish protective measures to ensure the safety of those being subjected to harassment and discrimination on campus.

The petition was created approximately four days ago and currently holds over 350 signatures.

Both petitions are demanding enhanced accountability from Laurier’s administration.

Within the free speech debate, many are in support of Shepherd’s actions — including several students who are in Shepherd’s tutorial. They believe her reprimand was unnecessary due to the neutral stance she took within the class.

“[Shepherd] didn’t have a view point, she didn’t want to say anything. She just asked us what we thought and everyone kind of spoke on that,” said Nathan Romero, a first-year student in film studies who was in one of Shepherd’s tutorial’s when the Peterson video was shown.

“There were a lot of questions about ignorance and about what this [topic] means, that’s what could have made some people mad — it’s just not a well-known kind of thing.”

In a previous interview with Shepherd, she also reiterated to The Cord that, although her stance was neutral, some of the perspectives which her students brought forth during the discussion which took place after she showed the video, could have been perceived as transphobic.

“I guess maybe some of the views that were expressed in the class may have been perceived as transphobic, however that would be a complaint on behalf of the person who said it and not myself. I remember one guy said “I identify as a pixie stick, please address me as a pixie stick.” And I mean, when I hear something like that, I just [put on a] straight face,” Shepherd said.

A consensus amongst several students in Shepherd’s tutorial who spoke to The Cord was that the Peterson clip did not further Shepherd’s lesson on pronouns in grammar. They agreed, however, that the video was a positive way to allow the class to engage in a discussion.

“I don’t think it really did anything with the lesson but I feel like it was a good topic to engage in especially because our class doesn’t really talk as much. It was a good thing to discuss and get engaged with but I don’t think it contributed to grammar in any way,” said Hallie Schueler, a first-year student in communication studies who is also in Shepherd’s tutorial.

Several students also explained that discussing relevant topics in the news is something Shepherd brings to her tutorials each week to spark discussion.

“That’s the whole point of communications — what’s going on in the world or Canada. It was a huge debate and there were people talking on both sides, but it was a discussion and it would be wrong to tell people that they can’t talk about what their viewpoint is regardless of the topic,” Romero said.

“Our campus is not safe right now. People feel exposed and threatened. It is a sad place to be. People have been silenced out of fear of being attacked. It is hypocritical that some of those attacking us are claiming to be proponents of free speech.”

However, since Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy released a public apology to Shepherd last week, there has been an influx of hostility on campus and online – targeted mainly at the WLU Rainbow Centre and individuals who have spoken out in defence of trans and non-binary rights and against the subject matter of the tutorial discussion.

Toby Finlay, administrator at Laurier’s Rainbow Centre, said the backlash being received at the centre has blown up and has been both emotionally and verbally violent to those being targeted.

“There’s no words to describe how much those Facebook comments have been taken up in ways that fully don’t understand the context in which [trans and non-binary people] exist in, and that are so blatantly transphobic,” Finlay said.

In addition to receiving dozens of one-star reviews on their Facebook page – many from people who do not appear to be WLU students or faculty – the WLU Rainbow Centre has received numerous messages that include threats, slurs and more through social media, emails, a comment box at the centre, and by individuals who have come to the centre in person to confront those present.

“I think it’s really telling that this is what happens when trans folks try to talk about the transphobia that we’re experiencing or [the transphobia] that exists within our communities,” Finlay said.

“If we are not able to engage in these conversations …. without it being led to a position where we are not safe in the Laurier community and in the spaces that we’ve already defined for ourselves within those communities, then I think we have a really big problem.”

Alicia Hall, coordinator for Laurier’s Centre for Women and Trans People, explained that, due to the hostility on campus, it is relieving for those being targeted to see faculty and others in the community stand up and push for equality on campus through the petition.

“The overwhelming thought that I couldn’t get out of my head is ‘where are allies?’” Hall said.

“Having other people be there and stand up for us, it really does feel amazing and I’m really thankful that the person who created the petition made that platform to invite other people to start standing up as well.”

Faculty signing the petition in defence of trans and non-binary students, however, have also received some backlash.

“Faculty and staff are scared to come to work right now. Some professors are receiving threats, extensive rants on their work phones and work emails, and much more. This weekend I was emailed by someone making anti-semitic comments saying that I need to return to ‘Club Med Levant,’” Bird said in a statement.

“Our campus is not safe right now. People feel exposed and threatened. It is a sad place to be. People have been silenced out of fear of being attacked. It is hypocritical that some of those attacking us are claiming to be proponents of free speech.”

For Finlay and Hall, a major issue and concern is the lack of accountability, support and resources that university administration has addressed, both within MacLatchy’s apology and beyond her statement.

“They didn’t address, at all, the actual core issue at hand which is really what started this all and that’s the fact that what Lindsay did was harmful. There should be some type of measure taken to ensure that trans students are protected on our campus,” Hall said.

Hall explained that, for many trans and non-binary folks on campus, the apology from president MacLatchy indicated to them that the main priority for Laurier’s administration is freedom of expression in contrast to the safety and respect for trans people in the community.

Furthermore, in an earlier statement released by the university, it was announced that an independent third party would be conducting an investigation surrounding the situation in order to neutrally gather facts from all parties and to assess how to move forward.

“I think that it was a premature apology, and by not going through the channels that the university itself played out in order to provide a voice for trans students and for everyone else, certain voices were very much left out of the equation and this has now been incorporated into the way the university presents itself on this issue,” Finlay said.

McNally, however, believes that the defence of free speech rights is a separate issue from trans and non-binary rights.

“I just don’t think trans rights are part of this. Trans people should absolutely have rights and be equal like anybody else, you never want to compromise those rights, trample on their rights or anything. I just think that’s a separate topic here,” McNally said.

Photo by Tanzeel Sayani

“There’s a world view that sees every event through the lens of oppression of minority groups and can’t interpret events in any other way and so they’re looking at this and going … this is all about just trying to silence transgendered people. And that’s not at all what it’s about. It’s not related to that, it’s just related to the ability of people at universities to engage in pretty much any topic of inquiry that they want to without sensor.”

McNally iterated that there’s a fine balance between protecting rights of inclusivity and rights of free speech.

“People get upset at things. And should we therefore not discuss anything that anyone gets upset about? It’s not just transgender students. There’s lots of topics — what about gay rights, gay marriage, what about climate change?” McNally said.

Finlay, however, explained that there are inherent power dynamics that are frequently misunderstood within this debate and the discussions that are being had.

“You have one side of the conversation that is tasked with defending their experiences of gender and reality against the other side which refuses to respect and uphold their experience of gender,” Finlay said.

“These are conversations that fundamentally ask us to defend our sense of reality to operate from a position where we are already at a disadvantage in the debate because we are already having ourselves put into question and I think that people who don’t have to experience that won’t see, or many won’t see, the really harmful implications of this.”

McNally said that developing a system in which both sides of this debate are satisfied would be difficult.

“You’ve got to balance free speech against other rights like inclusivity. I don’t even know how to implement that. Those two things are going to come into conflict at some point, and then the question is who exactly gets to speak and who doesn’t,” McNally said.

“That just worries me. That gets into very repressive environments, potentially, where you’re forbidden to say certain things and I don’t think that’s what a university is all about.”

Trans and non-binary individuals and their allies, however, have reiterated that this debate has essentially silenced their voices and, as a result, they will continue to seek proper support and an apology in regards to the lack of inclusivity being brought forth by the university.

“An apology is necessary, but so much more than an apology is necessary,” Finlay said.

“Adequate supports are needed to be put in place, preventative strategies that will provide trans folks safety in the future from these forms of violence that are targeting them … there’s so much more that needs to be done and this is particularly ridiculous when nothing has been done as of this point.”

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