Freedom of Expression Matters: Join the Conversation

As follow-up to my September 5th letter to the UBC community, I received a draft statement on freedom of expression from an internal working group convened by Professor Neil Guppy, Senior Advisor to the Provosts on Academic Freedom.

The working group, comprising ten faculty and staff members, worked through several iterations of a statement.  Input on an early draft was also received from elected student representatives (Senate and AMS).

I am grateful to the working group for moving this discussion forward, and would like to thank them for their hard work on this complex issue.  The intent behind this process is to generate a draft document to serve as focal point of a community discussion around freedom of expression.  

The members of the working group are:

Alan Hu, Faculty of Science
Alan Richardson, Faculty of Arts
Janet Teasdale, VP Students
Judy Illes, Faculty of Medicine
Karl Aquino, Sauder School of Business
Mary Bryson, Faculty of Education
Michael Griffin, Faculty of Arts
Neil Guppy, Faculty of Arts (Working Group Lead)
Sally Thorne, Faculty of Applied Science
Shirley Nakata, Ombudsperson for Students

To continue this discussion, we would now like to hear from a broader set of voices, to facilitate as wide and deep a conversation as possible. To this end, we have provided the latest draft statement which we hope will serve as a catalyst to encourage discussion and debate about how freedom of expression should be understood and contextualized in the modern university community. 

We welcome your thoughts and encourage you to read the statement below. We also invite you to be part of the conversation and share your own views in the form below from now until November 30, 2017.

Professor Santa J. Ono
President & Vice-Chancellor



Freedom of Expression Statement Draft, November 8, 2017

Freedom of expression matters. It fuels what good universities do. 

Especially in turbulent times, when facing challenges of contentious and divisive politics, economic uncertainty, terrorism, and environmental upheaval, the freedom to express and explore ideas must continue as our central mission.  As one of the world’s foremost universities, UBC must vigorously promote and defend the freedoms necessary for the successful pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.  Freedom of expression is, however, one of a number of rights and freedoms each of us has.  One person’s freedom of expression cannot be allowed to trample the freedom or wellbeing of others.

For centuries, universities have held a special place in society.  We are entrusted as guardians of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humanity, as trailblazers in advancing the frontiers of human knowledge and thought, and as leaders, mentors, and teachers in disseminating the fruits of this knowledge.  Central to this three-fold mission is the promotion of “the freest possible exchange of information, ideas, beliefs, and opinions in diverse forms” (see UBC Respectful Environment statement).  So, for example,

  1. How can we safeguard the lessons of the past if objectionable parts of the historical record are suppressed? 
  2. How can we create significant breakthroughs if entire lines of inquiry are forbidden? 
  3. How can we equip students to tackle future challenges, if they are shielded from demanding, provocative thought? 

Two principal reasons underlie our deep and abiding commitment to freedom of expression.  First, pursuing ideas freely and openly moves us closer to truth, allowing all ideas to be criticized and tested, accepted and revised.  Universities are communities of scholars where the free and open exchange of thought, belief, opinion, and expression is highly valued because it promotes better knowledge and understanding.  Second, our scholarly community is composed of people with diverse histories and cultural viewpoints while also encompassing a wide array of disciplinary perspectives.  This diversity makes universities, and especially UBC, a place unlike other institutions.  When all the voices of a diverse university community can participate equally in intellectual exchanges, this provides a rich, vibrant resource that helps in promoting a wide spectrum of expertise and opportunities in the pursuit of excellence.

Here is a significant example of why freedom of expression matters at UBC.  A core challenge in Canada, and one to which UBC is committed to addressing, is the ongoing process of truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.  Our collective lack of a shared knowledge about the lasting effects of our colonial past acts as an impediment to the essential conversations and negotiations that progress on these multiple issues requires. This is exacerbated by historic power imbalances that make this a complicated, difficult engagement.  It is an engagement that can only be tackled principally and ethically in a spirit of free and open dialogue and respect.

Scholarly dialogue should help us make progress on difficult and complex problems like this.  The intellectual richness of the university comes in recognizing alternatives, having contentious conversations, tackling stubborn assumptions, making brash conjectures, discussing uncomfortable facts, and engaging with sharp differences in values and visions.  Scholarly work finds its dynamism in this engagement.  It is the work that universities must do and do well (and, of course, we have not always done well as the need for truth and reconciliation highlights). Doing it well means holding open the idea that persuasion is still possible, that thought and evidence and reason can lead to solutions for the many grand challenges we face.

The educational benefit of exposure to diverse understandings, views, opinions, and thoughts, when done appropriately and respectfully, comes in developing the skills of intellect and character, the inner resources and personal resilience, which allows one to successfully and constructively engage with a tumultuous and at times unsafe world.  This necessitates scholarly spaces where critical thinking and incisive reasoning knows no bounds but is allowed to flourish unrestricted by who you are or to which social groups you might belong.  The university works assiduously to create a place where people are physically safe.  However, when confronting challenging ideas, ideas that question your deeply held beliefs, ideas that you might find noxious or offensive (or discovering that others find your deeply held beliefs noxious and offensive!), it is inevitable and appropriate to feel intellectually uncomfortable, even offended.

Creating and sustaining the conditions for such difficult discussions is hard, complex, and highly-charged.  As former UBC President Stephen Toope correctly argued, “a tension exists between our community values of respect for human dignity and the special place of free expression that universities protect.” Statements inciting hatred against identifiable groups, statements judged likely to incite breaches of the peace, and statements of a personal, ad hominem nature are foreign to the intellectual exchanges that strong universities must support and protect.  This is so because such statements are, at root, attempts to stifle or prevent the freedom of expression of others, to dissuade any response or discussion. 

Words can be used as weapons, aimed deliberately in pejorative ways to taint or stain the reputations and authority of others.  Deliberate attempts to create a toxic environment must remain anathema to the practices of the university community.  Freedom of expression rests on the potential of making positive, constructive contributions to the university community.  Speech or artistic expression that harms the proper working conditions of the academic community, by for example using hate to dehumanize certain groups, is speech and expression that cannot be protected or condoned.

UBC policies and practices work to promote the smoothest functioning of this scholarly community.  From our academic freedom declaration, to our statement on a respectful environment, to our policies on harassment and discrimination, there are in place mechanisms intended to ensure that freedom of expression flourishes at UBC.  Most fundamentally those policies and practices recognize the importance of freedom of expression, but they do so in the context of everyone’s fundamental right to  equality.  Freedom of expression does not trump all other rights.  In the university community freedom of expression can only thrive constructively when accompanied by other rights, including the equality rights of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

In all of this we share a collective responsibility.  Each and every one of us has the responsibility to support, safeguard and preserve this central freedom of expression.  Tuum est – it’s up to you!



Join the Conversation 

We welcome you to join the conversation and share your own views from now until November 30, 2017.

Your input will be shared with the working group and the broader UBC community.

Visit our Research site | Visit our Students site | Visit ubc.ca

UBC ranks among the world’s top 20 public universities.