Speakers, ‘Free Speech,’ and Bigotry on Campus

An Open Letter to Dr. Deborah MacLatchy (President and Vice-Chancellor, Wilfrid Laurier University) and Michele Kramer (President, Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association)

To Dr. Deborah MacLatchy (President and Vice-Chancellor, Wilfrid Laurier University) and Michele Kramer (President, Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association)

I am writing as a faculty member at Wilfrid Laurier University to express my concerns regarding the on-going “Unpopular Opinions” speaker series that seeks to bring bigoted views to our campus. This series, including the first speaker, Faith Goldy, will undermine faculty and their ability to teach in an equitable learning environment. Goldy, a well known white supremacist, who was recently fired from the alt-right website The Rebel for attending a neo-Nazi rally, is poised to use Laurier spaces and resources to promote discrimination and hate against marginalized persons, including members of our own student body and faculty. The title of Goldy’s talk alone “Ethnocide: Multiculturalism and European Canadian Identity,” combined with her recent recitement of the neo-Nazi slogan, make clear that the speaker values white individuals above all others and she intends to promote this on campus.

Belief in white supremacy is not, as the university seems to suggest in their defence of the talk, “controversial.” It is abhorrent and has no place on our campuses. By hosting this speaker, and the series in general, we must ask ourselves what the consequences are. What message are we sending to students of colour when we host a speaker who denies, diminishes, or denigrates their humanity? How are we supposed to attract a diverse range of applicants to our programs when we host a nativist who argues that immigrants are a detriment to society? How am I supposed to ensure that students of colour in my classes feel welcomed and accepted when on the other side of campus someone is promoting the view that they are inferior and unwelcome? Allowing this talk to take place is a fundamental breach of trust between educators and students. Given that education is, institutionally speaking, our primary social function, Laurier has a responsibility to not facilitate the dissemination of ideas and values that create barriers to fostering learning.

I think it’s crucial that the Wilfrid Laurier Faculty Association (WLUFA) and university administrators recognize how the university and their views on free speech and academic freedom have been co-opted to intimidate marginalized students and foster a culture of race-based hate and violence. To be clear: the goal of the movement behind the speaker series is to fundamentally change our culture into one that is openly hostile to those who do not support white supremacy. Furthermore, if the past views of the organizer are an indication, this discrimination could easily expand to include other marginalized and vulnerable members of our community as well. Campus talks such as these are not meant to foster debate nor serve as a means of exercising free speech; their goal is to marshal support for the supremacy of white people and ultimately to expel people of colour and other marginalized persons from society, an end goal that would obviously curtail freedom of expression by limiting the very people that pertains to. Indeed, researchers have noted that the phrase ‘free speech’ itself is being used as a proxy by those who hold racist and bigoted views (“Research shows prejudice, not principle, often underpins ‘free-speech defense’ of racist language.”) ‘Free speech’ is a wedge issue being used to create an opening for hate to spill onto campuses.

I implore WLUFA to consider the implications of this speaker series on their members and their classrooms and to vociferously oppose any talk that promotes the view that some students and faculty members are inherently inferior to others. And I respectfully request that the President and university administrators more broadly reconsider their stance on providing university resources to the promotion of bigotry and hate. It is imperative that the university recognizes their social responsibility to distinguish between speech that is of public interest and speech that seeks to diminish or degrade the inalienable rights of those who work, teach, and learn on campus, as well as society more broadly.

How might we move forward so that we are safeguarding the freedom to express ideas while also recognizing that some ideas, such as those that infringe on the rights of others, are not fit for campuses? As others have argued, colleges and universities are well within their rights — and one might even say have an obligation — to foster debate that has a pedagogical purpose. So, what is the pedagogical rationale for Goldy’s talk? Those who oppose white supremacy are already well-versed in the talking points of someone like Goldy and have nothing to gain from attending such a lecture. That leaves either those unfamiliar with such talking points or those who already believe in the supremacy of white individuals. If you believe that all humans are created equal, the best possible outcome here is that those who are unfamiliar with white supremacist talking points are unconvinced by the bigotry they hear. Effectively, the ideal outcome, even by Laurier’s own stated values, is that the talk itself falls short of its stated purpose. This is because, in effect, the pedagogical purpose of this talk is to promote white supremacy. Talks on campus should be required to provide a pedagogical rationale for why they are taking place on campus (as opposed to a non-educational venue). If that rationale contravenes the position of our own Diversity and Equity office, and the university’s values of inclusion, fact-based education, and diversity, then it serves no educational purpose within our community and the organizers should seek accommodations and resources elsewhere.

I find the above recourse or some variation thereof to be entirely reasonable for an educational institution that wants to be a leader and advocate for inclusion, diversity, and learning. It is simply wrong to offload the task of decrying these hateful views to faculty, staff, and students. There is an institutional responsibility to act here. Please do not shirk that responsibility — our students, staff, faculty, and community deserve better and they are depending on you.

Steve Wilcox, Game Design and Development, Wilfrid Laurier University