Free speech: A reminder of our rights and responsibilities

Vari Hall

Vice-President Academic & Provost Rhonda Lenton and Vice-President Finance & Administration Gary Brewer have issued the following message to the York University community: 

Each year, at university campuses across Canada, the first week of March is the time when issues and events regarding the Middle East are discussed and debated. As we are about to enter this period of increased discourse, we would like to ensure the York University community is aware of and understands the rights and responsibilities regarding free speech and free inquiry.

Freedom of expression is one of York University’s guiding principles. As a university, York encourages participation and open debate on issues of local, national and international importance. Members of our community have the right to express their views and to test and challenge ideas without fear of intimidation or harassment – provided they do so within the law and without infringing on the rights of others or disrupting the academic functioning of the University. One person’s strongly held view does not take precedence over another’s right to hold and express the opposite opinion in a lawful manner. Freedom of speech is for everyone or it is for no one. 

The University’s responsibility is to protect the academic environment and ensure that all York students understand and abide by established and agreed-upon standards of student conduct. It is the responsibility of those with strong views on either side of this debate to conduct themselves in a way that does not demonize others or create an atmosphere where intolerance is the inevitable outcome. Equally, we will not tolerate members of our community engaging in speech or actions that may be, or are perceived to be, threatening. It is not acceptable to attempt to disrupt or interfere with events on campus, even if some may find them distasteful. This includes actions by groups from outside the University who have been warned that attempts to silence students expressing themselves will not be tolerated. 

Political activism is no excuse for racism, intimidation or hatred of any kind. It is up to all of us, as members of the York community, to play our part in ensuring that we are contributing to a climate where ideas can flourish freely. York University remains committed to maintaining a civil and safe environment where open debate is encouraged, enabling students to pursue their academic studies free from unwelcome disruptions.

York upholds the fundamental principles of dignity and worth of every community member in accordance with York’s policies, which incorporate the Ontario Human Rights Code. In this respect, York has several of its own anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, as well as hate speech guidelines to help ensure respectful, civil and inclusive learning/teaching and working environments. We also have clear policies outlining appropriate conduct. We have and will continue to ensure these policies are communicated, understood and enforced. Any concerns regarding discrimination, harassment or hate speech can be addressed through our Centre for Human Rights.

Universities exist for the open exchange of ideas, and sometimes this can feel uncomfortable, but ideas can only flourish in an atmosphere free of intolerance, hatred and harassment. Let us renew our commitment to civil discourse, to openly exchanging ideas and to each other; let us build a York University free from discrimination in all its forms.