The threat of censorship lately has hung over the campus of the University of Prince Edward Island. Last month, the president of the school, Wade MacLauchlan, had the February 8 issue of The Cadre, the student newspaper, confiscated after it published the notorious Danish cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
MacLauchlan stated that he ordered the papers removed from "the property" to prevent "the possibility of a reckless invitation to public disorder and humiliation." He cited the deaths that had already occurred elsewhere in the world – though PEI is one of the most peaceful corners of the globe.
MacLauchlan met with the president of the Student Union four times in the days that followed, and the Student Union finally agreed to destroy the offending issue of the paper, although at first they had rejected the idea. MacLauchlan afterwards praised the Student Union for its wisdom in seizing and destroying the papers, insisting this had been their decision, not his.
"I was especially proud of the leadership shown by the Student Union in addressing a situation that was obviously not of its choosing," he remarked.
A few days after the controversy began, MacLauchlan staged a meeting with a Muslim woman on PEI, someone entirely unconnected with the university, who had written a letter congratulating him. He had the local paper, the Charlottetown Guardian, cover their conversation. She appeared in a photo with him, reading her letter as he looked on benignly.
"It was very honourable on your part to stand up to do what is right," she wrote. "Your action has set a great example of integrity, courage, justice, and wisdom, as befits a strong chief administrator of an educational institution." MacLauchlan then posted her lengthy letter on the official university website for a week.
An "open letter" from SAFS published in the National Post on February 16 criticized his action, and his behaviour also met with negative comments locally. But he continues to justify his actions.
"Is UPEI a more positive, dynamic and animated learning environment today than we would be if the cartoons had been left in circulation for the intervening three weeks, and their publication defended by the University as free speech?" asked MacLauchlan in a letter to faculty on February 28. Of course! "I am absolutely convinced that our learning environment is better for having limited the publication of the caricatures."
Things looked like they might get worse. The university administration is currently in negotiations with the Faculty Association over a new collective agreement. They were particularly insistent that the new contract include a "Code of Conduct" which would obligate the faculty to be respectful, punctual and reliable – do some professors arrive hours late to class? – and to "act in a manner that will contribute positively to the overall vision, mission, and reputation" of UPEI.
But who, pray tell, would determine whether the "reputation" of UPEI has been harmed? Note that the administration was not proposing that they also be bound by this code, though one could argue that the president has done more damage to UPEI than anyone on faculty or staff. Yet it would be the professors who would be, to say the least, discouraged from criticizing university policies.
One doesn't need a PhD in political science to be troubled by such developments. This was an obvious attempt to infringe on the basic right of freedom of speech, something every Canadian should hold dear. No other faculty collective agreement in Canada contains such language.
The president of the Faculty Association, Wayne Peters, told the membership that this clause alone was sufficient reason to go on strike – after all, if it were now in effect, I presume even a tenured full professor like myself would be liable to dismissal for writing this very article.
Due to the publicity generated by those opposing this code, which included letters of support from, among others, the Harry Crowe Foundation, the ad-ministration dropped its demand for the code. It was clear the faculty would never accept such a draconian clause.
A university is the very last place where one should try to stifle debate with gag laws. Where there is no check on power, those in control can act in arbitrary and capricious ways. This is an old tale.
I've been teaching a course on African politics at UPEI this semester, and we've been dealing with the many sad stories of the so-called "big men" who ruled their countries in totally arbitrary and capricious ways, and brought them to the brink of ruin. I guess that's why all this sounds so drearily familiar.