Expressive Freedom at Our Universities and Our Moral Obligations

Posted June 1, 2021
By Carolyn Sale

Everything is connected, as they say. 

The University of Alberta has been in the news recently for its partnerships with Chinese researchers. Globe and Mail article in early May suggested that partnerships with China in the areas of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence might be a national security concern. Last week, the Government of Alberta responded by ordering the university to halt all research with Chinese partners and prepare a report for the government on the implications of ending the partnerships. This is an unfortunate development as it constitutes government interference into the work of a university. Academic freedom cannot flourish where a government dictates to a university what research it may or may not do. But academic freedom can be imperiled in more subtle ways on our campuses—and sometimes by the very organization charged with protecting it on behalf of its members, the academic staff association. There are consequences for our moral obligations to one another, as Canadians.

Over the last few years, right-wing governments in Canada have insisted that the universities in their provinces adopt freedom of expression statements modeled on the Chicago Statement of the Principles of Free Expression. Ostensibly, these directives are intended to ensure that all viewpoints may have their fullest expression on our campuses within the bounds of law. There has been some sense that all of this was a tempest in a teapot—that there was no real issue with freedom of expression on Canadian campuses, and these government directives simply a means for right-wing governments to appeal to their base. But the fact that the University of Alberta administration did not want to include in the Alberta statement a vital clause from the Chicago statement that constrains university administrators from using the regulation of time, place, and manner of expression in a way not consistent with the overarching commitments to freedom of expression suggests that at one Canadian university at least the need to pass such a statement was meaningful.

Events since then have shown just how easy it is, sadly, for administrators to ignore the expressly stated obligations. At a recent meeting of the University of Alberta’s General Faculty Council a professor reported that the chair, one of the university’s vice-provosts, had rebuked him at a meeting of the GFC Programs Committee for writing other members of the committee the day before to share in advance of the meeting his concerns about an agenda item. The vice-provost’s position was that it was improper for the professor to communicate his views and any materials related to it outside of the confines of the meeting. She believed she was entirely free to dictate the time, place, and manner of the professor’s expression. At a subsequent meeting of the committee, which I attended as an observer, the vice-provost attempted to insist that a committee could consider only materials formally provided as part of the meeting “package.” The argument was rejected. But constraints on freedom of expression in university environments are—at least at the University of Alberta—more extensive than this.

The University of Alberta is home to the largest academic staff association in Canada (the AASUA), with almost four thousand members across seven constituency groups, the largest of which is the academic faculty. To facilitate engagement amongst members about issues of concern to them, the association hosts an online forum to which members can post. Disturbingly, the association recently changed this digital platform so that now beside every post a member makes and beside every comment on every post, there is a “Report” button. If you hover over the “Report” button, the message that appears reads “Report this post as inappropriate.” While there are some constraints on free expression in Canadian society, academic staff at the University of Alberta are being encouraged to “report” on one other, merely it seems, if they find someone else’s comment inappropriate. This makes no sense for an organization that not only depends, for its effectiveness, on solidarity amongst its members, but has contractual obligations to protect academic freedom. There cannot be meaningful exercise of academic freedom without meaningful upholding of free expression rights. 

These “Report” buttons are a chill on the robust exchange of views essential to a democratic faculty union that champions academic freedom and freedom of expression. While public social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit also have a means by which one can report inappropriate content, these means are not prominent. There are no “Report” buttons beside posts. There is, instead, a grey ellipsis button. Clicking on that button opens up a pull-down menu with various items, with “report Tweet” appearing at the end of the list on Twitter and “Find support or report post” at the end of the list on Facebook. In another words, these major public platforms find the means by which they meet their obligations in a discreet, unobtrusive way while an academic staff association whose members are supposed to be amongst society’s most ardent defenders of free expression is encouraging a culture of “reporting.” 

Such a culture is antithetical to what is essential to the proper functioning of a university in a democracy, a culture of robust critique. A culture of robust critique would have helped to prevent what has recently happened at the University of Toronto, where the Dean of Law rescinded the job offer to the top candidate to head the law school’s International Human Rights Program after a wealthy donor expressed concern about her appointment. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has issued a rare censure of the university as a result, which calls on academics to refuse appointments, honours, speaking requests, or other engagements with the University of Toronto until the issue is satisfactorily resolved and censure lifted. 

A culture of robust critique also helps to keep our major research universities from entering into research partnerships or collaborations with either domestic or foreign partners without the contracts for these partnerships rigorously upholding academic freedom. (The Canadian Association of University Teachers provides guidance for what the protocols should be and recommends that all contracts involving a sum over $250,000 be public.) And such a culture helps to keep lone researchers from being boxed into a corner by one administrator or another whose directives infringe the researcher’s academic freedom. But thanks to those “Report” buttons on the AASUA forum, the very people at the University of Alberta who need to be the most vigilant in ensuring the ethical operations of our universities through their work on university committees are being encouraged to think of acts of expression as acts they are encouraged to police—and, worse, acts that potentially get you into trouble.

I drafted this post before the horrific news that the bodies of two hundred and fifteen residential school students have been found in a mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School. In the wake of that news, Indigenous children’s activist Cindy Blackstock has tweeted about various aspects of the history of residential schools, including the attempts of Dr. Peter Bryce to expose what was going on in them in the early twentieth century. The Canadian government had no interest in hearing what Dr. Bryce had to say, and eventually forced his retirement. It is always only too easy for our public institutions to suppress discomfiting truths. There is currently widespread suspicion in Alberta, for example, that the United Conservative Party government of Jason Kenney (whose former chief of staff Paul Bunner has derided all residential school history as “bogus”) has been keeping Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw from guiding Alberta through the COVID-19 pandemic according to her sense of what the science requires. In the case of the suppression of what Dr. Bryce had to say, we have to ask how many Indigenous children in this country died whose lives might have been saved? For democracy to thrive and the well-being of all Canadians to be protected, we must have the confidence that everyone in our culture who has expertise to bear upon a public question or who knows of a wrong to the public interest will speak up in order to bring it to public attention. We must also have the confidence that moral wrongs to Canadian society will be brought to light—and a moral obligation to support the hearing of those wrongs. Our universities have a vital role to play in that, by supporting the strongest possible cultures of free expression.