Lindsay Shepherd carries on fight for free speech

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  • May 16, 2021

John Carpay, the president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) in Calgary, holds the conviction “that truth has the opportunity to emerge through debate, but if you censor debate, you silence truth.”

Lindsay Shepherd has seen debate censored up close and personal and has put pen to paper to share her experience.

The 25-year-old mother and native of Victoria, B.C., recently released her memoir Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis. In it, she presents arguments for saving free speech from ideological conformity while also providing a personal account of her experience at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., that thrust her into the national spotlight.

Shepherd found herself in the limelight in late 2017, quite unexpectedly, as a graduate communications studies student at Laurier teaching a grammar class to first-year undergraduates. She had watched a 2016 segment of the TVO program The Agenda with Steve Paikin featuring University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson taking issue with Bill C-16, which would add “gender expression” and “gender identity” as new protected grounds under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. It was a decision that would lead to an e-mail calling Shepherd to a hearing with a course professor, the program head and a representative from Laurier’s Diversity and Equity office and made headlines nationwide when Shepherd released a secretly recorded copy of her meeting to the media.

Shepherd’s book recounts how this episode turned her from an anonymous TA on a small university campus, accused of creating a toxic and unsafe environment for students, into a defender of free speech.

It almost didn’t come to be though. Shepherd was originally opposed to revisiting her past.

“I was pretty resistant to writing the book at first,” Shepherd told The Catholic Register. “I didn’t want to relive the Laurier controversy, but then I thought it was an interesting story, and I wanted the chance to document what happened in one book so someone can pick it up and have the whole case laid out. It really is a case study of a campus free speech issue in Canada.”

Shepherd has seen firsthand how free speech has become limited and how it has become the norm.

“In a way people have become so desensitized that they don’t even get outraged over free speech issues and how it is now,” said Shepherd. “It can be like, ‘oh, that student got expelled or that teacher got fired for stating they are pro-second amendment or pro-gun?’ Well of course they’re going to be expelled or fired.”

She details early in the book that at the time she held no strong opinion about Peterson and his worldviews. That would change, however. Her willingness to make what happened to her a matter of public interest has led to her emergence as a key voice in the public cultural conversation the past several years. Soon after her story hit the news, Shepherd founded the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry. Since 2019 she has been Free Speech Fellow with JCCF and also writes about free speech issues and the news of the day on behalf of the Canadian news platform True North.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Diversity and Exclusion is that it features a written transcript of the fateful conversation that Shepherd secretly recorded on the advice of her mother as both were suspicious of the vague language in the e-mail invitation.

Considering insights about grammar was at the heart of the Peterson segment on The Agenda, Shepherd felt her students would benefit from the screening of this clip as it would help them “see the real-life implications of seemingly uninteresting grammar rules.” She also felt it would complement the gender pronouns section of the student textbook and aired an exchange between Peterson and U of T professor of Transgender Studies Nicholas Matte.

No protest was raised about the content during the tutorial, Shepherd said, but one week later she would receive the startling e-mail.

Those sitting across from Shepherd said they felt Peterson “is a figure who is basically highly involved with the alt-right” whose ideas should not be exposed to young students, and that a couple of pupils complained about the material (a claim later proven false). She was also told her discussion ran counter to Laurier’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. She left the meeting with a dictate to submit all of her lesson plans beforehand for approval.

Instead of complying, Shepherd took the road less travelled because she felt it “wasn’t right to stifle discussion in an environment dedicated to open inquiry and the pursuit of truth.”

She believes the censorship of conservative thought and speech is even more acute in 2021.

“Diversity and inclusion offices serve as enforcers of ideological conformity,” she said. “They exist on campuses to ensure everyone believes trans women are real women, to be pro-choice and you have to believe Canada is systemically racist. If you don’t play along ... you will be excluded from polite society basically.”  

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