Recent events on our campuses have led us to reaffirm the University’s commitment to free speech and to highlight, once again, two critical features of this commitment.
First, as our Statement of Institutional Purpose makes clear, free speech can be uncomfortable. The right to free speech, it stipulates, is “meaningless unless it entails the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.” Every member of the University community should be prepared to confront opinions they find erroneous, unreasonable, or even deeply offensive. Such confrontations are part of the contest of ideas that drives discovery, understanding, and knowledge.
Second, the University’s Statement on Freedom of Speech argues that the right to free expression imposes an accompanying responsibility upon its adherents. It must comply with applicable laws. But more than that, the exercise of free expression “depends upon an environment of tolerance and mutual respect. Every member of the University community should be able to work, live, teach and learn in a University free from discrimination and harassment.” Threats or acts of violence are absolutely intolerable – the University will act swiftly and resolutely to protect and support its community. Speech or acts that silence or demean individuals or groups are also gravely concerning. Indeed, such behaviour stands in direct opposition to free speech and subverts the contest of ideas at the heart of the University’s mission.
It is worth remembering, particularly in strident and impassioned confrontations, that respect, civility, diversity, and inclusion, are not in tension with free expression. On the contrary, they enable it.
Meric S. Gertler
Vice-President and Provost