Universities Are Betraying Their Central Mission

April 2009

Over the past few weeks, CAUT has become aware of a number of disturbing cases in which university administrations have limited or suppressed debate on controversial issues. Whether it is banning posters or noisy demonstrations, we believe such heavy-handed actions constitute a clear threat to the purpose of post-secondary education.

Not surprisingly, the failures involve bitterly contentious issues. One is Middle East politics. Last month Carleton University and the University of Ottawa banned a student organization poster for Israeli Apartheid Week because the universities felt it too provocative. The poster, by noted political cartoonist Carlos Latuff, shows a stylized Israeli warplane firing a missile at a child holding a teddy bear and standing on ground emblazoned with the word “Gaza.” York University has gone even farther, invoking a noise policy to justify handing club suspensions and fines to student organizations that held counter-protests for and against Israeli government polices.

On the contentious issue of abortion, the University of Calgary told a student pro-life group it could only set up its graphic images of abortion, likening abortion to genocide, if it turned the images inward so that passersby couldn’t see them unless they approached the display. The students were threatened with suspension, expulsion, fines of up to $2,000 and arrest for trespassing unless they complied. The university’s lawyer was quoted as saying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply to univer­sities and freedom of expression protection does not extend to trespassers.

In invoking the need to be “respectful” and “civil” and to avoid “provo­cation,” too many universities are suppres­sing free speech and freedom of expression. Some universities are even stretching to invoke hu­man rights’ codes to justify suppression when these codes typically address the right to be free from discrimination in employment and in access to services and accommodations and are not meant to silence cam­pus discussion and debate.

Our institutions must remember the integrity of their central mission, which is so aptly described in the University of Toronto’s statement of institutional purpose: that “within the unique university context, the most crucial of all human rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of research,” and affirms that “these rights are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.”

The statement concludes: “It is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit.”

Our universities and colleges have occasionally lost sight of that vision in periods of tension, as during the Cold War years. Regrettably we now appear to be entering another era when many of our post-secondary institutions are failing in their public responsibility to foster rather than suppress discussion of deeply disturbing questions and controversial issues around which public passions run high.

However intensely supporters of Israeli government policy feel that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism or defenders of a woman’s right to choose find pro-life imagery disgusting and offensive, universities and colleges must rebuff their demands for suppression of their opponents. The Criminal Code provides limits on advocacy that threatens or justifies violence or other illegal harm. Our post-secondary educational institutions should look for ways to extend legal limits to promote discussion and debate, not invoke internal policies and narrow reading of the law to make discourse on campuses more restrictive than what can occur in society at large.

As far as the importance of civility, our institutions could well remember John Stuart Mill’s caution in On Liberty in which he decried as risky and hypocritical the notion that “the free expression of all opinions should be permitted on condition that the manner be temperate and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion.”

As he noted, “Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed: for if the test be offense to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testified that this offense is given when­ever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them … an intemperate opponent.”

Unless universities and colleges cham­pion and defend faculty and student rights to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to cherished beliefs, they have little reason to exist.