A day after saying it would not release the draft version of a new freedom-of-expression statement, the University of British Columbia has made the document public and asked the wider university community to provide feedback.

The statement was drafted in response to a request by UBC president Santa Ono early this fall for help in writing a document to replace remarks made by former president Stephen Toope eight years ago. A working group of 10 administrators and faculty collaborated on the document and submitted it to the school more than a month ago. But after expecting the paper to be presented and discussed at a meeting of the board of governors, many were surprised to learn the university was shelving the statement.

Dr. Ono announced that the university had decided to release the paper late Wednesday afternoon.

“I am grateful to the working group for moving this discussion forward,” Dr. Ono wrote in a statement. “The intent behind this process is to generate a draft document to serve as the focal point of a community discussion around freedom of expression.”

The roughly 1,050-word statement makes clear that it is difficult for 10 people to settle on how to balance the freedoms and responsibilities of speech on a Canadian university campus – suggesting that perhaps a balance is not even possible.

“As one of the world’s foremost universities, UBC must vigorously promote and defend the freedoms necessary for the successful pursuit and dissemination of knowledge,” the paper says in its first paragraph. But a few paragraphs later it shifts: When speech moves to attacks that can make some groups or individuals feel silenced, it becomes inappropriate, it argues. “Freedom of expression is, however, one of a number of rights and freedoms each of us has. One person’s freedom of expression cannot be allowed to trample the freedom or wellbeing of others.”

“People have started to realize that free expression can’t reign over all the other rights that people have,” said Neil Guppy, senior adviser to the provosts on academic freedom and the lead author of the draft paper. “We need to have working environments where respect and dignity operate – that is a very difficult balance.”

Many U.S. and Canadian universities have issued statements on free expression in the past several years, including McGill, the University of Toronto and Simon Fraser University. But while Canadian institutions stress the importance of speech fostering civility and respect, some U.S. schools give primacy to free speech.

And a small group have adopted what have come to be known as the “Chicago Principles,” after a statement drafted at the University of Chicago in 2015 that explicitly rejects the importance of protecting people from discrimination or harassment. Concerns “about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community,” the Chicago statement says.

The debate over speech comes as North American campuses have been increasingly reflective of a divisive political environment, with campus protests at times flaring into violence. Universities can help resolve such conflicts, some said.

“I think the state of the world is one very key point that I put on the table,” said Judy Illes, one of the members of the working group.

One of the central differences between now and a decade ago is that alongside new and more acute threats to personal security and appeals to political divisiveness, there is a recognition that speech can play a reconciliatory role, said Dr. Illes, who is Canada Research Chair in neuroethics in the department of medicine. Indeed, Canada’s process of reconciliation with its Indigenous people illustrates why it is important to balance speech with respect, the draft paper says. Only “free and open dialogue and respect” can redress the lack of shared historical knowledge between settler groups and Indigenous people and the power imbalance between the two groups.

Members of the working group say their draft is just a starting point and could be open to further revisions.

“Hopefully everyone in our community can relate to at least part of it, if not the whole thing,” Dr. Illes said. “What would be a good step to ownership by the community is to … utilize it in action and then potentially to refine it down the road, depending on how useful it is in providing guidance.”

The Globe and Mail, November 9, 2017