Freedom of Expression and Diversity

February 24, 2010

Dear colleagues, students and friends:

As each of us in the University pursues the daily work of scholarship and administration, it is worthwhile to reflect on the health of our interactions as a diverse community.

On the whole, we are very fortunate. In three of the world’s most culturally and racially diverse campuses, members of the University of Toronto set a standard for respect and understanding. Discussions on our campuses continue to deal with some of the most difficult subjects imaginable. And in general, free expression on our campuses has served to build a sense of community.

From time to time, however, we are asked to ban discussion of certain subjects or censor certain presentations. We examine those requests on their merits, but the bar to take such actions is high. Freedom of speech is a core value for any university in a democratic society. Younger members of our community will eventually enter a world in which heated arguments occur and careless or inflammatory rhetoric is not uncommon. We do them no service to shelter them from those realities.

That said, I want to acknowledge the over-riding imperative of campus safety when controversy bubbles and debates become heated. Thus far, the University of Toronto has been a safe place for vigorous debate on even the most divisive of topics. Looking ahead, we shall not tolerate any actions by any groups that cause threats to the physical safety of members of our community.

While the usual rule of law applies to any and all utterances on our campuses, there are some other responsibilities that I believe travel along with the exercise of free speech rights. These include decency and civility, avoidance of targeting of individuals and identifiable groups, and respect for diversity of opinion.

Occasionally incidents arise that compel us to recall these principles which are at the core of our work and life together. Some years ago, serious events occurred that left members of our Muslim communities feeling targeted; in the past year other incidents have occurred that alienated and dismayed members of our Black and Jewish communities. While these occurrences are rare, any such behaviours are deplorable.

I understand that there are strong views on our campuses on a wide variety of issues. We recognize the right of members of our community to exchange views that are discomfiting or even offensive to some. However, passionate advocacy – even righteous anger directed at some perceived injustice – does not preclude civility or generosity of spirit. We ask, therefore, that when arguments veer near or onto themes such as nationality, ethnicity, race or religion, all members of our community make every effort to express the qualifiers and nuances that mitigate the risk that their opinions can be interpreted as discriminatory denigration of individuals and groups.

I also note that there have been incidents in the last year in which speakers were shouted down at public meetings. Faculty members and student leaders have particular responsibilities in this regard. It is central to the values of a university that those with opposing views are granted a chance to be heard without abuse.

Here I want to caution off-campus groups that may be inclined to precipitate confrontations in an attempt to shut down presentations that disturb them. More generally, I urge all recognized campus groups and members of our community to provide constructive outlets for dissenting views when on-campus presentations address controversial issues.

For its part, the administration will continue to protect freedom of expression and promote interchange among persons with different viewpoints on our campuses. We shall not hesitate to intervene if there are concerns about safety, or if speakers migrate from advocacy to hate-promoting speech. As well, if we have reason to believe that an event could be abused to target members of the community, senior University staff will monitor that event in order to ensure that it is conducted in an environment of respect and inclusiveness. Last, when members of our community tell us that events or discussions may have violated University policies, we will assess those complaints quickly and take whatever actions are necessary to restore a safe environment for producing knowledge and discussing ideas.

In summary, as we move through the remainder of this academic year, I ask that members of our community rededicate themselves to maintaining an environment free of discrimination or racism in any form. I also ask that you keep firmly in view the key responsibilities and legal limits that accompany the exercise of free speech on our campuses.

Sincerely,

David Naylor
President

Feb 24, 2010