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Queen’s University: Endorse the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression

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Recent events across North American university campuses have sparked a vibrant conversation around the balance between free speech and sacrosanct ideas. Guest speakers have had their talks cancelled due to safety issues at protests, professors have lost or had their jobs threatened for unpopular remarks and students report a reluctance to express their opinions for fear of being socially and publicly ostracized. As a result, the role of universities as a forum for open debate and dialogue is in question. 

Given this trend, we are concerned about the potential suppression of viewpoint diversity at Queen’s. A university’s primary purpose is to facilitate learning through exposure to different ideas by guaranteeing the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, question and challenge. As a highly-regarded and publicly funded institution, Queen’s has a duty to hold space for competing ideas, including those that differ from the norm, even if they are considered by some or even most members of its community to be offensive, unwise or immoral.  

Queen’s has a mixed record with respect to free speech, free inquiry, free expression and free thought. Academic freedom is specifically highlighted in Article 14 of the collective agreement between Queen’s and its faculty; and a statement released in 1979 on "Freedom to Read" is still available on the Secretariat's website. Queen's identifies free inquiry and free expression of ideas as essential values and its “End to Hate” project even acknowledges that there is a role for vigorous disagreement over legal remedies in cases of disrespectful or demeaning speech.  However, in 2012 Queen's dismissed a professor for using politically incorrect language, even though a Canadian Association of University Teachers report found that he "discharged his duties in keeping with professional standards", and the language was used for educational reasons. The following year, a free speech wall was taken down by the school due to what was labelled "offensive content", though no specific examples were offered. As a result, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has graded Queen's University a 'C' for its policies and 'D' for its practices in its 2015 Campus Freedom Index report. Thus, there is room for improvement.

Several American universities, including Princeton and Columbia, have reaffirmed their commitment to free, uninhibited debate by endorsing the University of Chicago’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, commonly referred to as the “Chicago Principles”.

The strength of the Chicago Principles is that they acknowledge the natural balance between permitting free speech and protecting civil rights. For example, the Principles note that "The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University." This means that any hate speech, insofar as it is prohibited under Canadian law, would not be permitted by the endorsement of the Chicago Principles. The Principles simply stipulate that the school would hold space for speech as far as the law would permit, not beyond.

While the adoption of the Chicago Principles alone will not fundamentally ensure that Queen’s will continue to maintain and develop a culture of free inquiry and free expression (this responsibility has always and will always remain shared between the students, alumni, faculty administration and other stakeholders), this move represents a critical initial step. It will also make Queen’s the first Canadian university to publicly take this action amidst the growing focus this issue demands.

We request that Queen’s University asserts itself as a defender of free speech and expression through the endorsement of the Chicago Principles.

If you are affiliated with Queen's, as a faculty member, administrator, student, alumnus, donor or another stakeholder, please send your name and key background details to so this information can be presented to Principal Woolf.  Examples are below:

Jane Alpha, AppSci '84;

Dr. John Beta, Adjunct Professor, Smith School of Business;

Dr. Tina Kappa, Regular Donor, Medical School

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