Academic freedom controversies continue to bedevil universities in North America, highlighted most recently by the stunning episode at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University.
A teaching assistant in a communications program was reprimanded for showing video clips of a debate on the use of gender-neutral language, a scolding that seems almost incomprehensible in a university setting.
Academic freedom is not absolute, and there are some reasonable constraints that govern its application. But none have been offered that justify Wilfrid Laurier’s rebuke of the teaching assistant.
Lindsay Shepherd appeared to have been encouraging debate and civil discourse on a topic about which people disagree. That, indeed, is a key function of academic freedom, and of the university itself, which the Wilfrid Laurier administration has now recognized in its public apology to her.
Elsewhere, militant campus activists from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum have sought, with some success, to shut each other up through demonstrations, threats and alarming social media campaigns. Universities and colleges are struggling to define the boundaries of acceptable speech.
Grappling with free expression on campus
In what ways can free expression in higher education be reasonably constrained? There are several.
Fraudulent research by professors and students are grounds for dismissal in the case of the former, and severe academic penalty in the case of the latter.
Professors are not entitled to publish anything they write in academic journals. They are subject to peer review, and editors can require them to revise manuscripts; submissions perceived to fall short will be rejected.
Academics can be made to teach certain courses, and prevented from teaching others, in the interest of meeting student demand and program coherence.
While academics and students are entitled to publicly criticize their administrations (is there a single non-university organization that would allow this?), most deans, vice-presidents and other senior administrators, who may also be academics, do not have that freedom.
In the classroom, university teachers must lecture competently; they do not have a licence to use their podiums in order to lie, propagandize or speak in habitually ill-informed ways.
Different forms of expression
Free speech allows citizens to do this on street corners or blogs, but universities have loftier goals.
Academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the same thing; they are different forms of expression, both vital, in a democratic society. Can a university legitimately restrict the use of certain language or otherwise govern the interactions of its members?
In the past, professors who demeaned women, spoke or behaved in racist ways (the history of sexism and anti-Semitism on Canadian campuses is well-documented), or degraded and demeaned students, had free rein. They were not accountable for their words and actions.
This, rightly so, is no longer the case. Universities are now committed to treating their members equitably and with dignity.
Codes of professional behaviour have evolved, and those teaching at universities may not use sexist or racist language, nor can they humiliate students. Professors can vigorously challenge students’ ideas and criticize their academic work, but this must be done respectfully and professionally.
Regulations and guidelines upholding such standards, in my view, are entirely justified.
Another restraint in Canada can be found in the country’s Criminal Code. Speech that promotes “genocide” and “incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace” is illegal, on and off university campuses.
White supremacists denied?
The law, presumably, could deny a university platform to white supremacists, like those who marched and chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this year. (The U.S. has no such hate law.)
Neo-fascists who speak in code, avoiding overt hate-mongering, could be exposed and denounced by critics. But, if their words break no law, forcefully silencing them sets a perilous precedent that could be used to curtail vexatious presentations by those with different political views.
Some argue that such regulations of speech and language are insufficient — a stance that has led to major flare-ups on American and Canadian campuses, including the Wilfrid Laurier episode.
Certain activists on the left seek to prohibit any form of expression which might offend identifiable groups. That has meant controversial conservatives like Ann Coulter, Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson have been interrupted or uninvited from campuses rather than being debated or intellectually confronted.
Through U.S. publications such as Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist, militants on the right have declared intellectual and political war on leftists, post-modernists and other reviled equity warriors. Such surveillance and attempted political shaming have encouraged some extremists to threaten the lives of targeted faculty.
Dogma and intolerance
These equally illiberal campaigns from both right and left, rife with dogmatism and intolerance, threaten to paralyze universities and erode their academic raison d’être, which must be rediscovered and reaffirmed by administrators, faculty and students.
The fundamental purpose of academic freedom is to facilitate the widest possible scope for expression by professors and students. The university’s commitment to equity and cultural diversity can affect, to some degree, the conduct of university relationships, including the use of language.
Prohibitions on racism, sexism and harassment are legitimate and necessary. But behavioural regulations can be too wide-ranging, ineptly applied, or taken to extremes by zealous advocates who seek to silence rather than intellectually engage their adversaries.
The middle ground is increasingly submerged by competing dogmas in this polarized age. Universities and colleges should commit the radical act of restoring reason and rationality to their policies and practices. The future of our institutions, and possibly civil society itself, requires it.
This is an updated version of a piece that originally appeared in the Toronto Star