Inside Lindsay Shepherd's controversial battle over free speech on campus - 2017-12-11
Lindsay Shepherd wishes she had written her speech last night. She simply didn't have the time or the energy. Not that she does now. It's a Friday afternoon in late November and Shepherd is sitting at Wilf's, a campus restaurant at Wilfrid Laurier University. She wants a salad, but then she looks at the clock. She has a half hour until the start of a free speech rally organized by local university young Conservatives, where she's the feature speaker and only a single paragraph written down for her speech so far. She'll have to skip this meal. She's been doing that a lot lately. People gathering for a rally in support of Lindsay Shepherd on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University, November 24, 2017. Cole Burston She grabs her pen and starts writing about the state of free speech on university campuses and about the experience of being labelled a transphobe. Meanwhile, a crowd starts to grow a short walk away by Veterans' Green Park, across the street from Laurier's main campus entrance in Waterloo, Ont. They're being handed signs that read "I stand with Lindsay #freespeech." They're gathering here because of Shepherd: the teaching assistant who showed her class of first-year undergrads a short video clip featuring controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson as part of a debate from a public broadcasting show; the self-described leftist who opened up a discussion on the use of gendered pronouns, without picking sides herself; the grad student who through tears stood up to her supervisor and two other Laurier staff members who reprimanded her for potentially breaking the law by showing those video clips neutrally and without offering context; the free speech advocate who leaked the audio of that meeting to the press, opening up the university to criticism of stifling free speech on campus; the Laurier newcomer who got an apology from both a professor and the university president; and, now, the social media star with more than 30,000 Twitter followers. But then there are also those gathering across the street for a counter demonstration. They aren't diametrically opposed to free speech. Rather, "the discourse of freedom of speech, is being used to cover over the underlying reality of transphobia that is so deeply ingrained in our contemporary political context," the Rainbow Centre, a campus group that supports the LGBTQ community, wrote on its Facebook page days prior. As such, the counter-protesters hold placards around their shirts that read "Trans People Deserve Justice." Many of them keep their faces covered under a scarf. It's understandable if they have legitimate safety concerns. One need only look at the Facebook page for the Rainbow Centre and see the uptick in hate messages in recent weeks to realize threats to their safety exist. People gatering for a counter demonstration at the November 24 rally. Cole Burston Shepherd finds herself at the epicenter of a debate that has erupted at universities, in online chatrooms and newspaper editorials across the continent; where Laurier has been pulled into disrepute and its academics brought to the edge of paranoia. Shepherd is between two movements, one of transgender people speaking up for their rights and another of right-wing free speech protectionists fighting against political correctness on school campuses. Shepherd, meanwhile, is a vegetarian, pro-choice, universal health-care supporting environmentalist and ardent supporter of free speech. Her critics have been called her everything from transphobic to a hero of the alt-right—two labels she rejects. But she's no longer fully in control of her own narrative. With minutes until it's time to leave the restaurant for the rally, Shepherd rehearses her opening line: "I never thought we would get to a point in society where showing a clip from The Agenda with Steve Paikin in a classroom would end up as an international news story and scandal."
Shepherd writing her speech ahead of the rally, November 24, 2017. Cole Burston There was no TV in the Shepherd home growing up. Her mother wouldn't allow it until Lindsay was about 12, and even then they got rid of it after a couple years. "I don't subscribe to the wasteful consumerist culture that we live in and I didn't want my children to watch all the advertising," says Jennifer Shepherd, Lindsay's mom and a school teacher in Coquitlam, B.C. "And there's all this crap on TV. I didn't want her watching stuff I thought was going to be a waste of her time. I'm open to whether that was the right decision or not because there's a cultural aspect to television." Instead, most of Lindsay's spare time was spent reading, everything from Archie comics to Christopher Hitchens. At the dinner table, the family discussed "things like biological determinism versus free will," Jennifer says. "Or gender roles and whether they're constructed or not. Or the benefits of organized religion. I've tried to guide her to see things from all different perspectives and I've tried not to lead her in any one direction." One thing her mother worried about was her daughter's confidence—that is, until Lindsay reached university. When Lindsay moved away to study at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., she was a member of the school's recreation centre, helped with the student union elections committee, and worked at a local gelato shop. She jumped at the opportunity to help with nearly every public recycling event that came to the Vancouver area. She also volunteered for Terry Beech, the Liberal MP for Burnaby North-Seymour. All this while learning Farsi, her boyfriend's native tongue, so she could join in the conversation with his Iranian parents. When she accepted an offer to do her masters at Wilfrid Laurier University, it was in part because the program on cultural analysis and social theory sounded unique, but also because she'd get the chance to live in Ontario. On the last day hanging out with her boyfriend before moving to Ontario for school, the two didn't have much time to relax. Not when she needed to clean out her entire place and make sure every single container was recycled. "We had to wash it, clean it, and recycle it," says Mahdi Ghodsi. "She walked 30 minutes with heavy bags full of bottles just to make sure she could recycle them properly." At one point, Ghodsi threw out the suggestion that, in the interest of saving time and getting to hang out a bit more together—and just this once—they throw everything in the garbage. Shepherd rejected the idea outright. "She's very principled," he says. "If there's something she doesn't believe in, she won't do it no matter what the cost."