Free speech policy ‘nothing new,’ Principal Woolf says

University says new policy will protect academic debate, won’t expect student groups to adopt free speech policies

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There’s nothing new when it comes to free speech, according to Principal Daniel Woolf. 

Woolf sat down with The Journal to talk about the first draft of the University’s upcoming free speech policy, recently  mandated by the Ford government and posted for public feedback.

There was little community response to the policy’s first draft, according to Woolf. 

“We didn’t see the need to invent something new when we already had existing policies,” he said.

 “If it simply becomes an administrative policy orchestrated by the Principal’s office, and [is] simply put out there and posted, we have satisfied the government’s requirement.” 

In its press release last August, the Office of the Premier also required universities to encourage student unions to adopt policies that align with the free speech policy. 

When asked whether student groups would be expected to adopt free speech policies, Woolf said the University wouldn’t mandate it because different student groups’ views on free speech might vary.

“All we’re saying is this is going to be the University’s policy,” he said. “It’s nothing new, nor is the procedure when we hear of a controversial speaker coming to campus. We do go through a safety review to make sure we have appropriate security. That’s been a practice for a long time.”

Woolf added this practice was used during Jordan Peterson’s visit to campus last March, and the Ford government’s expectation is universities will penalize student groups who shut down guest speakers through harassment.

“I don’t actually expect that’s going to be something that will routinely occur here,” Woolf said. 

Recalling the protests against Peterson last winter, Woolf said that, while there’s freedom to protest, there are limits.

“What you’re not free to do in reasonable protest is barricade doors and create a fire hazard and start harassing people who are going to the talk,” he said. “The protest itself, walking around with signs and chants, that’s fine, but you can’t shout down the speaker.”

During the Peterson protests, a number of Queen’s professors addressed an open letter to Woolf about his views on academic debate and criticized the event.

At a senate meeting following the letter’s publication, Professor Eleanor MacDonald told Woolf, “We need to think about free speech, but we also need to think about costly speech. We need to know that when we say that speech should be free, that certain individuals bear the cost of that speech more than others and we need to acknowledge who they are.”

In response to faculty members who argue some individuals could bear the costs of free speech more than others, Woolf told The Journal he recognizes some people may be hurt by certain statements, but returned to arguments he made in a Globe and Mail opinion piece published last winter. 

“We’re a university,” he said. “We’re not here to provide reinforcement of views, we’re here to challenge views. The best way to confront an obnoxious and ridiculous idea is with a less obnoxious and rational idea, not by simply ignoring it and pretending it will go away.” 

If particular types of speech don’t cross over to hate, he said, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” 

While Woolf said the University wouldn’t forego the school’s tradition of free debate “just to spare feelings,” he maintained Queen’s has an obligation to provide support.

“Where people do feel maligned or threatened or hurt, we do have some obligation to provide support for that,” he said. “But providing support for that feeling, providing alternate places for them to assemble and so forth, is not the same thing as preventing the speech in the first place.”

As far as providing specific types of support for people who may feel targeted, “it depends entirely on the circumstances,” according to Woolf. 

“There are counselling services available if people feel upset and unhappy,” he said. “But again, I would challenge the notion that a speaker on campus who you don’t actually go and listen to is actually all that hurtful to you.” 

Woolf added he’s not disagreeing with the views of those who feel their identity may be challenged and threatened by certain kinds of speech on campus, but he said it’s “far better” for the University to offer support than promise safety from views people “might not like.”

“This is the one place, the one institution in a world that is increasingly intolerant, anti-intellectual and opposed to nuanced and rational thought where, for several centuries, we have been the protectors of rational thought and discussion.”

“We cannot let that principle go,” he added. “Otherwise, we’ve basically eliminated the core mission of what it is to be a university.”

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