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Rows of chairs seen in a university lecture hall
Quebec’s bill may be seen as part of on-going ‘culture wars,’ and alongside Ontario and Québec conservative governments’ grandstanding about ‘free speech’ on university campuses. (Shutterstock)

What is Québec’s Bill 32 on academic freedom, and why does it matter?

In the wake of the controversy over the suspension of a professor at the University of Ottawa for using the n-word in a 2020 lecture, the Québec government hopes to pass Bill 32, a proposed act “respecting academic freedom in the university sector.”

The bill was tabled April 6 and is under committee review.

In addition to undermining the autonomy of universities and faculty, and creating myriad implementation problems, the bill blurs the important distinctions between free expression and academic freedom. Most troubling, it signals that politicians are turning academic freedom into a political weapon.

All Canadians should be concerned about the shift in the meaning and control of academic freedom this bill could usher in.

What’s the bill calling for?

Bill 32 aims to define and control the principle of academic freedom that is now under the jurisdiction of universities. The bill redefines university academic freedom as, “the right of every person to engage freely and without doctrinal, ideological or moral constraint in an activity through which the person contributes, in their field of activity, to carrying out the mission of an educational institution.”

As scholars whose combined work engages with the politicization of language and language, race and belonging, we share concerns with other anti-racist scholars that the bill prioritizes the right to speak without consideration for ethical ramifications. The bill would overshadow issues of justice for racialized members of the academy.

Currently, complex questions about creating “safe spaces” or issuing “trigger warnings” in classrooms are addressed within universities. Commentators argue that the bill “spells the end of ‘trigger warnings’ and "safe spaces’ in the classroom.”

Rejected by students, university teachers

The bill has sparked significant controversy and ignited criticism from students and university teachers for its overreach into university autonomy.

The bill’s Article 6 would give the minister of higher education the power to “order an educational institution to include, in its policy, any element indicated by the minister” or “have the necessary corrections made.”

Québec student unions and Canadian Association of University Teachers have opposed the bill. The head of Concordia’s Black Student Union notes the bill would traumatize racialized students by reaching into university jurisdiction to permit derogatory language without concern for its effect, and calls it a “slap in the face.”

Read more: Academic freedom can't be separated from responsibility

Given that the suspended professor did not work in Québec, one might wonder why the province has proposed the bill. In March 2021, when Danielle McCann, Québec’s minister of higher education, announced a committee to examine academic freedom, she said recent events had convinced the government to take action.

One might wonder how Premier François Legault’s criticism of the suspension of a professor who did not work in Québec has culminated in a bill that attempts to radically transform the definition and control of academic freedom. Perhaps the extent of this reaction reflects anxieties specific to Québec’s nationalist articulations of its identity.

U.S. and Canadian contexts

The bill imports American principles by blurring the distinction between academic freedom and free expression or free speech, similar to other Canadian conservative government manoeuvres, discussed below.

The Canadian and U.S. legal frameworks for academic freedom differ. One fundamental difference is that in Canada, Charter rights do not apply to universities. By contrast, in the United States, the First Amendment, the source of equivalent rights, does apply to public universities.

The U.S. Supreme Court decisions concerning First Amendment free speech rights have a long history of including academic freedom. This connection is non-existent in Canada.

In Canada, academic freedom is grounded in collective agreements or memoranda of understanding negotiated between faculty associations and university administrations. It usually includes the autonomy of the university and its faculty from outside pressures including provincial and federal governments.

In the U.S., the rate of unionization at universities is far lower than in Canada, making collective agreements less viable as the guarantee of academic freedom.

The Alberta Court ruled that the Charter right to free expression applies to campus anti-abortion protesters in Alberta and that students at the University of Calgary were merely expressing themselves when they denigrated their professor on Facebook. But no court has ruled that the Charter applies to universities’ classrooms or university teaching.

To further confuse matters

But Bill 32 focuses not on freedom of speech, but on academic freedom. The only other province to legislate on issues concerning academic freedom to our knowledge is Manitoba.

Manitoba’s Advanced Education Administration Act merely states that the minister responsible for post-secondary education, “respects the appropriate autonomy of educational institutions and the recognized principles of academic freedom.”

But the goal and functioning of Bill 32 is to define and control the principle of academic freedom (now under universities’ jurisdiction).

The Québec government claims it can do better than universities in protecting this core principle of academic freedom. More substantially, this bill politicizes complex questions of how professors do their work at the university.

Ignores right to criticize government

Commentators have criticized the bill for omitting what is usually considered a fundamental dimension, that is, the right for academics to criticize their own universities as well as government.

University collective agreements are clear in granting academic freedom to faculty members based on them having fulfilled years of education to become experts in their fields.

But the bill ignores these standard definitions of academic freedom and presents it as if it is like the right to free expression: universal, applicable to everyone regardless of their qualifications.

As American historian Joan Wallach Scott argues about the American right-wing: by “collapsing the distinction between academic freedom and free speech, they deny the authority of knowledge and of the teacher who purveys it.”

Potential problems with scope

Since the bill does not restrict itself to academics but speaks of “the right of every person … in their field of activity,” concrete problems for implementation are evident.

For example, if a professor gives a student a C in a course, could this be challenged as restricting the student’s academic freedom from “doctrinal” constraint?

Could not the offence of plagiarism be argued as a “moral” constraint and thus against a student’s academic freedom?

Three men in suits seen seated at a press conference in front of microphones.
Bill 32 sees Québec joins Ontario and Alberta in using university life as a political weapon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Joins Ontario and Alberta ‘culture wars’

The purpose of this bill seems comparable to the influential statement issued by the University of Chicago, known as the Chicago Principles of Free Expression. Those principles nowhere mention academic freedom. But, they were also the grounds for the university to speak against “trigger warnings” and the notion of the university as a “safe space.”

The Chicago Principles have been adopted by many American universities, although not without controversy.

When Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford insisted that universities in their respective provinces adopt freedom of speech policies, they referenced the Chicago Principles.

Québec’s bill may be seen as part of the on-going “culture wars,” along with Ford and Kenney’s grandstanding about free speech crises on university campuses.

As in those cases, maybe this is just political posturing with little genuine concern for the quality of university education.

In sum, even if this bill is revised or fails, its very proposal signals a move towards using academic freedom as a political weapon.

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