Academic Free Speech Needs Continual Defence

March 1999

In an increasingly complex civilization, universities play a vital role in promoting scholarship: the preservation, dissemination and expansion of knowledge. Crucial to that role is academic freedom. This is the right of unfettered debate on contentious issues according to the principles of responsible scholarship: rational argument applied to factual evidence. But this right is both hard-won and continually attacked by individuals, groups and governments taking offense for religious, political, or commercial reasons.

In Western democracies these attacks usually come from conservative forces external to the university; current examples are attempts by corporations to suppress information discovered by university researchers on harmful side effects of drugs. Such threats are well understood, but the last 30 years have witnessed attacks from other , more subtle, sources. Activists assert that, being dominated by white heterosexual males, universities need reform to eliminate racism and sexism. The incident initiating this development occurred at Cornell University a generation ago. In 1963, Black students rioted and held several hostages, claiming that a professor's evaluation of the economic performance of several African countries was '.racist." Setting terrible precedents, Cornell met the students' demands for an academic program having an explicit political mission, and forced the professor to apologize.

There have since been many similar assaults on academic freedom, with administrations routinely botching their resolution. In Canada, one of the worst occurred at McGill in 1993 when feminists disrupted a lecture by a U .S. psychologist arguing that recovered memories of sexual abuse are implanted by the therapists. McGill failed to discipline the offenders or to provide redress to the speaker.

These failures reflect widespread acceptance of the doctrine of postmodernism, which displaces the idea that facts and evidence count with the idea that everything reduces to subjective interests and perspectives. Postmodernism politicizes scholarship and legitimizes tactics such as discrediting an argument by pointing to the proponent's race or sex. Typically, "chilly climate" investigations of the political science departments at the Universities of Victoria and British Columbia portrayed critiques of feminist scholarship as sexual harassment.

Postmodernism has also fostered the adoption of speech codes and racial and sexual harassment criteria having subjective definitions of 'offence'. Furthermore, in academic appointment and promotion practices, when an individual' s excellence -- however imperfectly evaluated -- should be the predominant criterion, postmodernism accentuates [inappropriate] group membership criteria.

The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship was formed in 1992 following both attacks on controversial professors and the ensnarement of others in absurd harassment proceedings. The Society does not deny the problems that speech codes and harassment policies address. It argues that experience has confirmed early critics' predictions: the codes and policies have created secretive, self-justifying bureaucracies, and unfair investigative practices prone to abuse by individuals bearing grudges. Furthermore, by creating a climate of uncertainty, they assault academic freedom.

Speech codes have been especially troublesome; indeed, political scientist Abigail Thernstrom depicts U.S. universities as "islands of repression in a sea of freedom." In Canada, Ontario's NDP government introduced a draconian code which civil liberties lawyer Alan Borovoy described as "making one person' s free speech contingent on another person' s thin skin." This code is still in force.

As the recent swimming coach case at Simon Fraser University illustrates, harassment policies have also been problem-ridden, with administrations repeatedly bungling their implementation. Although few in number, such debacles have serious legal consequences, lead to agonized policy revisions, and polarize campus communities.

The Society believes that speech codes and harassment policies have proved to be unnecessary, costly, divisive failures. For example, the harassment uppermost in the public mind, "sex for grades," was a serious academic offense long before harassment codes were introduced, so that these codes focus on trivial cases such as leering or the ideologically offended.

Typically, this February, in granting the appeal of a Waterloo sociology professor against his conviction for offending a student by savagely criticizing employment equity, the adjudicator commented on the flawed nature of the university's policy, and on the absurdity of forcing insincere written public apologies. [Also, this May, when a few students in a University of Massachusetts biology class objected to a professor's factual description of an abortion drug, a bureaucrat declared it harassment warranting replacement of the professor with someone more "sensitive."] Given evidence such as this, it is time for detached and open reappraisal of these policies.

Critics such as the Star's Thomas Walkom portray the Society as defending only certain views. But it speaks out on all attacks on academic free speech, regardless of the ideological content. In the recent past we have defended a conservative Muslim, a feminist scholar , a leftist homosexual, as well as academics who discussed sex and race differences in human groups in ways that may have been uncomfortable for some but which were consistent with the academic mission of the university, which is the search for truth through reasoned argument.