Hate Speech, Cyber Space, and Trump: A GDPP Roundtable

Niha Shahzad

On October 30, the Gender, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (GDPP) struck a chord with students at the University of Toronto during their roundtable talk on free speech and hate speech policies. At this event, participants discussed policies and recent events that have sparked outrage throughout North America. Roundtable participants discussed President Donald Trump’s Islamophobia, accusations of hate speech at Dalhousie University, and University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use genderless pronouns. Students from the School of Public Policy and Governance were joined by guest speakers Aarzoo Singh, a PhD candidate at the Women and Gender Studies Institute, and Fady Shanouda, a PhD candidate in disability studies at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Cutting right into the controversy on campus, the roundtable began with a discussion about the conduct of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. Dr. Peterson has infamously refused to use genderless pronouns on campus, and has sparked outrage among students and faculty. His critics say his actions further marginalize transgender or genderless people, whereas Peterson thinks that forcing him to use pronouns he disagrees with limits his freedom of expression.

“There is a power dynamic in play that cannot be ignored”

Facilitators asked participants to consider whether a nationwide policy should monitor universities’ policing of freedom of speech. One student said that “the politically neutral thing to do is to let universities decide how to monitor free speech,” which is what currently happens today. The University of Toronto’s Policy on Academic Freedom states that the university “should not limit…debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.” Yet disagreement about what constitutes “reasonable” speech means that freedom of speech remains a subjective issue and allows people like Dr. Peterson to object to using genderless pronouns. Guest speaker Aarzoo Singh argued that students don’t have that same power as professors to express themselves freely. “There is a power dynamic in play that cannot be ignored,” she said, noting that Peterson is a tenured professor.

This skewed power dynamic was evident when Dalhousie University pursued disciplinary action against Masuma Khan in response to a controversial Facebook post. The vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union wrote that she did not support Canada 150 celebrations and ended her post with the hashtags: “#whitefragilitycankissmyass” and “#yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis.” Her post garnered backlash and an investigation by Dalhousie administration after another student complained that her post targeted white people. The disciplinary hearing against Khan was later dropped. With respect to the Dalhousie incident, roundtable participants discussed whether policies that monitor online hate speech weaken democracies by stifling political dissent, or strengthen democracies by protecting people’s rights. Guest speaker Fady Shanouda said, “Maybe further regulation isn’t what we need on the Internet, because it isn’t as structured as a university—it discourages spontaneous thought. Maybe we need stronger positions and louder voices.”

“Call in” rather than “call out” culture

 However, some participants thought that unpoliced online speech causes real damage—for example, Trump’s bashing of minorities and Muslims on Twitter. Khadija Waseem, a student at the Rotman School of Management, noted that “social media…[has become] a place to talk and to rant. But [we could have a] culture fostered to listen.” Aarzoo Singh agreed, saying that social media policing is only fixing the symptom rather than the issue of hatred. Singh said that to create a culture of respect in her classes, she encourages a “call in” culture rather than a “call out” one. When her students voice problematic views, she engages with them  and invites them to join in a conversation, rather than dismissing them and fostering a culture that excludes an opposing opinion.

But what if your cultural view depends on questioning a societal construct? Participants were confronted with this dilemma when it came to the question of whether policies should have censored the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, famous for publishing provocative cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims see them as Islamophobic, because to them any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is disrespectful. Muslim participants at the roundtable felt the cartoons were an attack “psychologically and emotionally,” and that they could qualify as hate speech. Other participants, though, responded that Charlie Hebdo’s satire stemmed from French culture rooted in the principle of questioning religion, specifically Catholicism. To them, the comics constitute political speech and should not be censored by policies.

Overall, there was no clear consensus on the extent to which policies should monitor free speech and hate speech on campuses, or in cyberspace. But maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps it only matters that healthy debate and disagreement remain respectful of all parties. If we can foster a culture of respectful debate, maybe we would see a decline in hate speech.


Niha Shahzad is in her first year of the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance. This is her second’s masters degree, having completed her first at Queen’s University. She has 3 years’ of professional work experience in marketing for various industries. Her policy interests include healthcare, global affairs, and digital governance and innovation. Outside of studying, she can be found binging Freakonomics podcasts, reading philosophy or science fiction, and practicing yoga and meditation.