President's Statement on Rights of Free Speech and Peaceful Protest

November 07, 2014

I am responding to communications I have received recently from faculty and other members of the SFU community asking me to take a stance as president of the university concerning Kinder Morgan’s plans for pipeline expansion and the situation of some faculty members involved in protesting such expansion.

The role of any university is to nurture debate and dialogue about important and often controversial issues in the public sphere.  I am pleased in this regard that SFU has adopted a strategic vision to be an “engaged university” that takes pride in its faculty and students participating in public discourse and dialogue.  An underlying principle of that vision commits SFU to being “an open and inclusive university whose foundation is intellectual and academic freedom.”  As such, we will always support the rights of our faculty members to engage in free speech and peaceful protest within the limits of the law.  Not only are such rights guaranteed by Canada’s constitution, but they are as vital to academic endeavours as they are to democratic systems.

In supporting such rights, it would be inappropriate for the institution itself to take positions on policy issues that fall beyond its core institutional mandate.  To do so would lack legitimacy, place a chill on free and open debate, and compromise the university’s ability to act as a credible and neutral defender of the speech rights of others.

With respect to the possibility of the pipeline expansion adversely affecting the university’s interests, SFU has sought and obtained intervenor status in the National Energy Board hearings to monitor developments and ensure that such interests are protected.   

On the issue of civil disobedience, I recognize that the decision to engage in such action is a deeply personal and political one that individuals make knowing the risks and consequences.  Having said this, the university cannot support actions that are contrary to law.   

Where questions arise about the legality of any protest, the university must leave it to the legal system to decide on such matters.  While the university will not interfere with the rights of faculty, staff or students to act upon their deeply held personal beliefs, it is not in a position to ameliorate the financial or legal consequences of such action.  Nor would it be appropriate for the university to comment on legal matters that are before the courts.    

I appreciate that these are difficult issues about which there are strongly held views.  I hope, however, that this statement helps to clarify the university’s position.