Call to create an Academic Freedom Act

December 15, 2021

Marco Fortier, Le Devoir, December 15, 2021

An independent commission set up by Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education recommends the adoption of a law on academic freedom to protect professors from censorship and guarantee students’ “right to learn”.

“All ideas and subjects without exception can be debated in a rational and argued manner within universities,” says the report of the independent scientific and technical commission on the recognition of academic freedom in the university environment, unveiled Tuesday.

“In their pedagogical context, classrooms cannot be considered as ‘safe spaces’,” says the commission, chaired by former PQ minister Alexandre Cloutier, who is now vice-rector for partnerships, international and Aboriginal affairs at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC).

At a press conference in Quebec City, Cloutier called on the Legault government to act before next fall’s elections to clear up the “confusion” in the university community, he said. “This is not a marginal situation. […] Quebec has the opportunity to become one of the places in the world where the free flow of ideas will be best recognized. It can become an opportunity to promote Quebec universities: here, we have the right to discuss everything, to debate everything. Of course, we must do so respectfully, in accordance with the rules of civility. We must do it with rigour,” added Alexandre Cloutier.

Prime Minister François Legault has indicated in the past his intention to send a “strong signal” in favour of freedom of education, without going as far as to introduce legislation. Universities, the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation and the Union étudiante du Québec are also opposed to the adoption of a law that would dilute the autonomy of institutions.

“We agree with the Commission’s objectives: university freedom is at the heart of our teaching and research activities. But the idea of judicialising freedom is a major problem because each university has its own mission and its own particular context,” says Pierre Cossette, rector of the Université de Sherbrooke and president of the Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire.

Worrying incidents

A strong gesture is necessary, argues Alexandre Cloutier, because university freedom has recently been undermined by a series of explosive incidents. The report lists 16 controversies involving freedom of teaching or research that have occurred in recent years.

In October 2020, a lecturer at the University of Ottawa was suspended for mentioning the n-word. A lecturer at the University of Quebec in Montreal was also the target of a harassment campaign by a handful of students for mentioning the words “man” and “woman” in a context that was deemed transphobic.

“Books have been removed from lesson plans for fear of offending certain sensitivities. Lecturers have been disinvited under pressure from groups who disapprove of what they say. The expertise of faculty members has been challenged on the grounds that they do not have the right ‘identity’ to deal with certain topics. In some cases, legal action has been taken to gain access to academic research data,” the 71-page report says.

Widespread censorship

In this polarising climate, “a significant part of the academic community does not feel comfortable exercising its full academic freedom”; 60% of faculty members said they had already censored themselves by not using certain words, according to a survey conducted by the Commission; 35% said they had avoided teaching a subject deemed too controversial. More than a quarter of students also say they have censored themselves in the course of their studies.

“There is no right not to be offended,” said Cloutier, recalling the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Mike Ward case.

Only a law could guarantee the freedom of teaching essential to the transmission of knowledge “in a uniform manner for all institutions”, according to the Commission. This law would define the mission of universities and academic freedom. Each institution should have a committee to receive complaints and ensure that the principles of the law are respected.

The Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ-CSN) welcomes the establishment of these committees, which would handle contentious cases in a collegial manner. Christine Gauthier, vice-president of the FNEEQ, insists that the dispute resolution mechanism should no longer be the sole responsibility of the establishment directorate.

It also supports the recommendation to take action against cyberbullying that targets teachers or students who are deemed offensive.

Michel Virard