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The balance between saying what you think and thinking about what you say

When Nicole Doyle was looking for a way to get her students to discuss an ethical dilemma, she turned to Grey’s Anatomy. She described a scene from the hit TV show, where a young man is informed by his doctor that he would die soon. The young man doesn’t want his mother to grieve during his final days, and so requests the doctor to withhold this key piece of information.

“So,” Doyle asked the students, “what should the doctor do?”

To her surprise, all the students looked surprised by the question. All of them felt the answer was obvious: the doctor should tell the mother.

There was no room for debate. And that was indicative of a bigger problem.

Free speech on Canadian campuses has become an increasingly controversial issue over the past few years, and it’s not just restricted to discussions about fictional characters.

In 2017, Wilfred Laurier University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd found herself thrust into the middle of a fierce debate when she was reprimanded by her superiors for showing a clip of psychologist Jordan Peterson’s criticism of Bill C-16.

Two years later, students at the University of Alberta demanded the dismissal of assistant lecturer Dougal MacDonald for his denial of the Holdomor, a mass genocide against Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Such controversies prompted Doug Ford’s Ontario government to mandate in 2019 that all publicly assisted universities and colleges must develop new free speech policies.

Durham College has since released a free speech policy that “allows for open discussion and free inquiry where diverse voices can be heard and ideas and viewpoints can be explored and discussed freely and debated openly without fear of reprisal, even if these are considered to be controversial or conflict with the views of some members of the College community.”

However, such a policy doesn’t stop students from censoring themselves, says Nicole Doyle.

A faculty member of the School of Justice and Emergency Services at Durham College, Doyle has many years of experience discussing controversial subjects with students. She teaches a course called “From Snoop Dogg to South Park: A History of Censorship”, and notes many students don’t require a Standards and Practices department to stop them from saying things that “might harm their peers.”

Durham College students aren’t alone.

A Maclean’s survey conducted last year reveals just over half of college students in Canada think some people on their campus “avoid saying things they believe because there is a chill on expressing views that could be deemed offensive.”

As a faculty member, Doyle has taken several steps to foster a more conducive environment within the classroom, also known as a “safe space.” The goal is to allow students the opportunity to engage in discussions and refrain if they feel uncomfortable.

“There is always the option to not participate in a conversation. So I don’t dock students marks if there is one particular conversation that they’re not comfortable participating in.”

Doyle ensures students are aware of the topics that will be discussed in upcoming classes. This allows them to prepare and decide on how they’d like to approach the subject matter.

“I don’t have to change their minds, because I don’t want to,” Doyle says. “I want them to open their minds and see things differently.”

Sometimes such a difference of opinion can lead to more than just a spirited debate in class.

Any Durham College student who feels discriminated against through the words and actions of their peers or faculty can approach Allison Hector-Alexander, the Director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Transitions at Durham College.

“If a student were to come forward to file a complaint and said, ‘This particular group is speaking about their beliefs and what they hold to be true. However, here’s how I feel unsafe,’” says Hector-Alexander, “Then we have a responsibility as an institution to look into it.”

A student can choose either an informal or formal process when it comes to seeking redressal of their concerns.

An informal process involves discussions between Hector-Alexander’s office and the students or faculty whose actions prompted the complaint. The aim is to educate them about the discriminatory aspects of their behaviour.

“Even if I can’t change people’s minds,” says Hector-Alexander. “I hope to leave them with something to think about.”

If the student opts for the formal process, the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Transitions begins a fact-finding mission. Depending on the complaint, Hector-Alexander says, they may involve Campus Security, the Dean or other faculty members.

In terms of preventive measures, the Office organizes many awareness events throughout the year, focusing on topics such as religious days, cultural days, International Women’s Day, Black History Month and Pride Month.

While Doyle strives to encourage discussion in a safe space and Hector-Alexander aims to raise awareness about crucial topics, both agree the goal is to promote free speech, rather than simply avoid controversial ideas.

When asked about Doyle’s observation regarding self-censorship among her students, Hector-Alexander stated that unspoken harmful ideas are still harmful in the long run.

“That’s the thing about Canadian culture,” she remarked. “We’re very polite!”

But it’s more important to unpack those ideas than it is to avoid hurting others. Hector-Alexander refers to this as “respectful discourse” – the process by which people can discuss controversial opinions with the intention of learning different points of view.

“We want this to be the best learning experience for students,” she says, “but also have them go beyond their comfort zone.”

For Doyle, that meant getting her students to look beyond whether the doctor in Grey’s Anatomy should or should not have told the mother about her son’s impending death.

Free speech within a safe space isn’t about arriving at the right answer.

Sometimes there isn’t a right answer.

Instead, college is a place that affords students the opportunity to say what they think while providing them with the tools required to think about what they’re saying.