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SOGIE and academic freedom

October 05, 2019 - Saturday 4:10 AM by E.R. Nartatez

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(SOGIE 5 - SOGIE commentary continued.)

In my previous piece, I addressed the concern that some principles and practices of religious freedom may come into conflict with some provisions of the SOGIE Bill, particularly this provision, “Engaging in public speech which intends to shame or ridicule LGBTQ+ persons.” I can conceive of not-so-far-fetch situations where the two values can actually clash.

The same concern spills over into the issue of academic freedom. Sen. Hontiveros was asked this very question in the recent Rappler Talk interview (quoted in my previous article), and this was her response;

“SOGIE Equality Bill (SEB) recognizes academic freedom, it also recognizes that each educational institution has its own policies and regulations, and criteria for admission and retention and promotion of students. The principle that's urged and encouraged by the SEB is the nondiscrimination especially in the achievement of the student of his right to education.”

I fully affirm what Sen. Hontiveros referred to as the “principle… (of) nondiscrimination especially in the achievement of the student of his right to education.” Every student must be given all the opportunities to pursue and succeed in education. This principle is blind to sex and gender!

However, this is not where the concern is; it’s in the area of freedom for diversity of thought, and the freedom to verbally articulate and defend diverse ideas in the academy without the threat of legal penalties. As I see it, if SOGIE Bill becomes law, then there may be some issues that may no longer be freely and openly discussed and debated even in the halls of academe. Let me give the following scenario:

You’re a university professor, and you discuss in class contemporary issues surrounding sex and gender. You mention that the current debate includes many aspects, e.g., the socio-political, legal, biological/scientific, and even religious. Briefly, you also mention the various positions on the debate. Then you open the class for Q & A. A student asks for your personal take on the issue. You explain that because you consider biology as the most fundamental aspect in this debate, you try to align your views with the available empirical evidence, i.e., on the science of biology. You point out that biological markers show human sexuality to be binary—male and female (though very rare exceptions of intersex cases do occur). And that the same is true in gender, i.e., gender is also binary. 

You also discuss the opposite perspective that posits sex as a spectrum, i.e., that there are other sex types beyond male and female, and that gender is fluid and is based on how a person feels about him/herself. And that proponents of this view say that current gender norms in society are just social constructs and do not really reflect the wide diversities of sex and gender. 

You point out that you reject such views, and that you prefer the traditional understanding of sex and gender as binary because it’s solidly based on biological science. Here's a brief defense of traditional, strictly biological view on sex and gender by sexologist Dr. Debora Soh:

Here then is the question: If an active member of the LGBTQ+ was present in your discussion, and he/she felt offended or insulted, under SOGIE law, can a complaint be filed against you based on the charge that you were “engaging in public speech” that, in effect, amounted to shaming and ridiculing members of the LGBTQ+ community? Is this threat real?

Lindsay Shepherd’s case may be instructive here. At the time (2017) Shepherd was a graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario, Canada).

In a communications class, Shepherd showed video clips of a debate that aired on TV, featuring controversial clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson (University of Toronto) debating Bill C-16 and the use of non-traditional, non-gender-specific pronouns (or the right of the members of the LGBTQ+ members to be referred to by their preferred pronouns, and not the standard male-female ‘he-she’/‘him-her’ pronouns). Dr. Peterson is opposed to the bill because, according to him, it’s a form of institutionalized compelled speech, violating freedom of speech. The more aggressive LGBTQ+ activists view Dr. Peterson as an adversary to their cause.

Apparently, someone in class was not happy with the Peterson clips and reported the incident (although no formal complaint was filed). This reached Shepherd’s superiors, and she was called for a meeting with her supervisor, the head of her academic program, and someone from the school's Diversity and Equity Office.

In the meeting (really an interrogation), Shepherd was basically accused of creating an unsafe and “toxic climate” and that she was guilty of “gendered violence.” In fact, she was told that by showing the video she was actually in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code. She was then instructed to submit lesson plans prior to her class meetings (apparently for vetting to make sure that she doesn’t present any “unacceptable” material in class). Shepherd defended her actions as consistent with academic values, but she was just overwhelmed and was even brought to tears.

Early in the meeting, smelling something was off, Shepherd secretly recorded the audio and later released it, stirring a storm of controversy. * 

As of this time, cases have been filed in court. (For an overview of the incident see Wikipedia article ‘Lindsay Shepherd’.)

If SOGIE is legally institutionalized, can similar cases also happen here? If the threat is real, will professors and teachers simply cower down and avoid discussing issues that can be a basis for a complaint for violation of a SOGIE provision? If so, is this not already a form of curtailment of academic freedom and of free speech?

There’s a lot to think about here.

* To listen to the full audio of the “meeting” search “Full conversation, Lindsay Shepherd, Wilfrid Laurier University” on YouTube here. An article with some commentary is here