Muzzles, megaphones, media

Muzzles, megaphones, media McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 7, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 05
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 35: 2002-2003 > November 7, 2002 > Muzzles, megaphones, media

Muzzles, megaphones, media

Universities, more than any institution other than parliament, are where debate is most vital. In many ways, free and unhindered dialogue on issues of import - whether it be cloning or Middle East politics - is the true raison d'être for institutes of higher learning. Yet when Sunera Thobani, a women's studies professor at University of British Columbia, criticized U.S. foreign policy a month after September 11, 2001, her comments were called, in a National Post editorial, "febrile misandry and vicious anti-war hatred [condensed into] a spit ball aimed squarely at the memory of those who died." Her department was inundated with what a fellow professor characterized as "hate mail," and many called for the university to fire her.

Photo ILLUSTRATION: Tzigane

What role does a university have in maintaining academic freedom, and more fundamentally, freedom of speech?

The Canadian Association of University Teachers recently featured an article on Campus Watch in its newsletter. Campus Watch - formed by the American-based Middle East Forum - is an organization that monitors professors in Middle Eastern studies who the group feels "reject the views of most Americans and the enduring policies of the U.S. government about the Middle East." Campus Watch plans to monitor professors' writings and solicit reports from students about classroom activities for their website. Already, some 24 institutions - up from 16 in mid-October - are listed for on-campus activities related to the Middle East that the site's owners find questionable. These include the University of Toronto, listed for a professor's circulation of a pro-Palestinian petition. A number of academics are listed on the site for their writings or in-class comments, and 140 academics are listed as being in "solidarity with academic apologists for suicide bombings and militant Islam." Those in the latter group contacted Campus Watch asking to be listed on the site in protest of the site's method and aims.

"Campus Watch appears to be an attempt to intimidate and silence particular academics and to place their opinions outside the boundaries of 'legitimate' academic debate," said CAUT executive director James Turk.

McGill professor of political theory Catherine Lu said that while the site claims to want to stimulate debate on these issues, its methodology and language do not have that effect.

"By identifying the cause of the arguments that they disagree with as basically being rooted in lack of patriotism, they've already undermined an intellectual basis for the debate and signalled a lack of respect for those holding other views," she said.

Although Lu likened the site's aims to the McCarthyist anticommunist crusade of the 1950s, Gil Troy, a professor of American history, disagreed.

"I think the cries of McCarthyism are a little extreme. I think what Campus Watch is trying to do is say a certain orthodoxy has emerged in the profession," he said.

According to Troy, after the battles of the 1960s opened academia to new approaches, and freer debate, a new set of standards has settled over academia - one that he feels needs challenging.

"The irony of the '60s is that it fought one orthodoxy, and while it initially looked like it was open to heterodoxy it often imposed its own orthodoxy. And that can be expressed in tenure and grants - follow the money."

Even so, Troy said that he doesn't believe - as other academics have charged - that Campus Watch is an attempt to muzzle debate. He does take issue with some of their methods.

"The notion of deputizing students to catch professors in infelicities is obnoxious - it goes against the broader spirit of honesty and mutuality in the classroom."

Professors need to be active in asserting the "free marketplace of ideas" - much more so than they have been in recent decades. That this hasn't happened is a result of disengagement on the part of academics from campus life outside the classroom. Troy explained that up until the '60s a university and its professors were expected to have authority over almost every aspect of their students' lives -from dating to dress codes. The social turmoil of the '60s threw that aside, but it also took faculty away from their positions as role models.

"We focus very much on what goes on inside of our classrooms, and we've decided that what goes on outside of our classrooms is not our concern. Our job is to provoke debate and stimulate thought," he said. "McGill professors are particularly removed from campus life."

The issue of freedom of speech in Canada arose again after the riot that prevented former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking at Concordia University, September 9.

Concordia's subsequent decision to impose a moratorium on campus debate on Middle East issues was applauded by some, condemned by others.

Mathematics professor Charles Roth was at Concordia when the riots occurred and was shaken by what he saw.

"[Such] conduct should lead to expulsion. For those instigators and participants on student visas, once expelled, it should lead to deportation. Those who are here legally should be prosecuted," he said. It's a hard-line view, but Roth believes that the rioters, in the free marketplace of ideas, "peddle poison from a pushcart."

Roth adds, "Freedom of speech certainly doesn't imply freedom for violence."

But the goal of preventing someone from speaking at a university is not new. In 1997, when then-president Suharto of Indonesia came to Canada for a conference, UBC students tried to prevent him from visiting their campus.

These kinds of protests are an indication of student engagement with their institutions, which Lu feels reflects not only commitment to their causes, but also to their vision of a university.

"The conflict itself reveals something interesting about how students think about their university, in that it is theirs. They feel they are members and participants in that culture, and feel they ought to be empowered to include or exclude certain participants if they feel there is some moral transgression. It isn't at all that people who protest are unpatriotic or don't identify with the community. It's precisely because they identify with the community that they feel they are equal members, that they embark on the quest of criticizing," she said.

Political science professor Harold Waller believes that a speaker's views - no matter how distasteful or unethical - must be allowed to be expressed. "You can bring in speakers, no matter how offensive they might be," he said. "Free-wheeling debate is what makes academic life very attractive to a lot of us - but you must maintain an atmosphere of mutual toleration and respect."

In the late 1960s, McGill struggled to define what is civil or respectful. The Daily was at the centre of a storm when it ran a column by John Fekete concerning Lyndon B. Johnson and the deceased John F. Kennedy that, even by today's standards, was in extremely poor taste. Fekete and two Daily editors were threatened with expulsion. In outrage, students disrupted a Senate meeting and stormed the principal's office. The students' response and the difficulty of determining the boundaries of "taste" left Fekete suffering only a reprimand. The political message of the piece was lost in the debate.

This year the Daily has received negative attention for Rob Salerno's columns in which he criticized student groups like the Women's Union and Queer McGill. Salerno's columns were gleefully politically incorrect -and could probably be designated as falling outside the realm of "civil."

"It's the hypocrisy of the left - they claim to defend freedom, but freedom to defer from their opinion is not one of those freedoms," Salerno said, "Political correctness needs to be scrutinized."

Current Daily editor Phillip Todd said that although Salerno's columns alienated some of the Daily's constituency, it is part of their job. "For a paper like ours, it's our duty to find where that limit of expression is."

One of the most egregious examples of curtailing the freedom of ideas is in the burning or banning of books. McGill's libraries are host to a stack of books that are of controversial character, from Mein Kampf, to The Satanic Verses, to Origin of the Species.

"It would be our role to order absolutely everything, especially if they are controversial. Often, for historical reasons, that is the most interesting to look at," said acting associate director of systems and services Hanna Waluzyniec.

Most of Waluzyniec's experience has been in McGill's medical and engineering libraries -even there, controversial material needs to be protected.

"When I was in the health sciences library many years ago there were books that came out on how to commit suicide - that's the kind of thing I think would be important to have. Not because we wanted people to rush out and commit suicide, but it reflects how society at that time was looking at things," she said.

Libraries are not immune to political events. Waluzyniec said that US librarians are very worried about the proposed Patriot Act. This act would, among other things, allow library borrowing records to be subject to warrant. Protecting that information is important enough to librarians that they are looking at ways of deleting borrowing records as quickly as possible, in order to keep patrons' reading habits safe from the eyes of government.

"It's a very strong principle of librarianship," Waluzyniec said, "and it goes a long way back, to when the Christian churches would ban lists of books."

The principle of freedom of speech is always most at risk during times of conflict - the Cold War and the current "War on Terror" are examples of this. Universities have struggled to remain oases of peaceful discourse, and it is a role that McGill has always taken seriously. In the words of Principal Lewis Douglas, speaking to McGill graduates at the Founder's Day Dinner in the pre-war era of 1938:

"[A university] must be an institution in which the inquiring mind can roam untrammelled and unrestricted by conventions. But it must, too, be an institution which insists on intellectual competence, on intellectual balance, on mental integrity. It must not become, indeed it would seal its doom if it were to become an agency of propaganda."

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