President's Statement on Respectful Debate at Simon Fraser University

"We are an open, inclusive university whose foundation is intellectual and academic freedom …. we celebrate discovery, diversity and dialogue.”

Excerpt from SFU Statement of Values and Commitments

Public universities play a unique role in Canadian society: they are places in which people should feel free to exchange ideas, beliefs and opinions.  Controversy, conflict, and criticism are inherent to this role. Yet universities also aspire to foster an environment that promotes civility and respects human dignity.

So what position should a university take when one person’s speech offends another person’s sense of human dignity?  Should the university seek to curtail such speech? As tempting as it might be to do so, I believe such action would be misguided in principle and counterproductive in practice.

Universities operate on the principle that freedom of speech is a core component of intellectual enquiry and is central to the pursuit of knowledge. The value universities place on free expression does not imply their endorsement of views that are expressed.  On the contrary, it is understood that all ideas, beliefs and opinions are subject to analysis and criticism that may result in their modification or rejection. Critics may themselves face criticism. The expression of provocative, uninformed or distasteful views must be tolerated so their inadequacies can be debated and exposed.

In practical terms, efforts to curtail offensive speech often result in such speech being given greater attention and its purveyors gaining greater prominence than would otherwise be the case.  Thus attempts to reduce the influence of offensive speech through regulation are liable to produce the opposite effect.       

For these reasons, when disputes arise in our university around major social and political issues, we should err on the side of tolerating free speech. Provided such speech does not overstep legal boundaries, it should not be censored even though it may be provocative or offensive.

This does not relieve us of our responsibility to try to foster an environment of civility and mutual respect. On the contrary, the broad rights of free expression we enjoy oblige all of us to work harder to promote such an environment.  Nor does it permit us to disregard the chilling effects that provocative and offensive speech can have on members of our community. These effects are real and we need to show understanding and support to those who suffer them. 

I therefore urge all members of the university community to redouble their efforts to create a culture that celebrates robust and vigorous debate within an academic milieu characterized by reason, tolerance, and mutual respect. Freedom of speech is a precious right and, as such, we have a duty to do all we can to ensure that is exercised responsibly and with civility.