Canada Does Not Protect Academic Freedom? What A Load Of Bupkes

September 2008

Canadians rarely concern themselves with the internal quarrels of American scholarly associations, nor should we. Such disputes are always tempests in teapots, and why care about turbulence in teapots not even our own?

But here's a case where we are at least nominally the subject of such a quarrel. The American Political Science Association, one of the largest of the academic professional associations, is scheduled to hold its 2009 annual meeting in Toronto. This would be its first meeting in Canada, indeed its first outside the United States. There are many Canadian members of APSA (this writer included), and the decision to meet in Toronto was a tribute to Canada's contributions to the political science profession.

Almost certainly, the meeting will proceed as scheduled, if only because it's too late for APSA to move it. Be this as it may, the site is now under challenge. Tomorrow, on the eve of this year's annual meeting in Boston, the council of APSA will consider a petition alleging that Canada does not protect academic freedom.

As the petitioners present Canada, it is subject to a reign of terror due to the excesses of human-rights commissions. What fun would a scholarly meeting be if you couldn't impugn gay rights or Islamic extremism, and the human-rights commissions are alleged to have rendered this intolerably risky. No sooner will you deliver your paper than you'll be dragged off to the commission hoosegow. The petition would require the APSA leadership to seek assurances from the Canadian government that academic freedom will be protected.

How thoughtful of the Americans to be committed to democracy promotion even in Canada. When I first heard of this petition, my eyes misted over - until I reflected that it was all a load of bupkes.

I loathe human-rights commissions as much as anyone. They are an excrescence on our body politic, and they make Canada a less free society, not a freer one. Their procedures are grossly unfair, placing intolerable pressures, financial and otherwise, on defendants to settle their cases even where they are innocent. They represent a malign bureaucracy run wild. There are other legal avenues for pursuing issues of discrimination, and any federal government with guts would at the very least rein in these commissions.

But this is for Canadians to worry about. Americans should stick to their own worries. The petitioners' claim that human-rights commissions pose a threat to them is bogus. How many international scholarly conferences are held in Canada each year and no repercussions whatsoever? How many controversial guest speakers have I myself sponsored, many on the supposedly taboo issue of Islamic extremism?

When promoters of this petition approached me, apparently expecting me to sign it, I asked them whether they could adduce a single instance of the abridgment of academic freedom in Canada. They could not. Canada's record on academic freedom is exemplary. In political science, empirical evidence is supposed to matter; it has made no impression on the signers of this gasbag of a petition.

In fact, the signers neither know much about Canada nor care about it. They made no serious attempt to consult their Canadian colleagues. Many of them seem to think human-rights commissions are criminal courts in which the government brings charges against defendants. They haven't even looked into the question of whether any human-rights commission has ever claimed jurisdiction over visiting foreigners.

So what's really going on? Internal APSA politics. In recent years, the question of location has become politicized, first by the left and now, in revenge, by the right. Presumably, the petition will fail. The signers have warned that, if it does, they will boycott next year's meeting. They will remain safely where they are - the few, the proud, the cowering. If they make good on this fearsome threat, I will look forward to not seeing them. Yankee stay home.

Free expression, my signatory friends, free expression. Surely I have as much right to defend Canada as you to traduce it.