On Thursday 21, Professor Mark Mercer, the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) and professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia held a mini-symposium at the UTM campus to talk about issues surrounding freedom of expression on campus.
The SAFS was formed in 1992 with the intention of maintaining academic freedom in research, teaching, and institutional decisions regarding students and faculty. From the restriction of academic job searches in universities and colleges around Canada, to criticisms of U of T’s psychology Professor Jordan Peterson’s comments in 2016, the SAFS has striven to protect students and faculty’s academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Recently, freedom of speech has been a point of conversation for universities since the Ontario government’s mandate on August 2018, that required post-secondary institutions implement a freedom of speech policy by January 1st, 2019, or risk funding cuts.
During the mini-symposium, Mercer examined freedom of expression and popular reasons for why people might oppose expression on campus.
“One of the reasons people are hostile towards [forms of] expression is because talking about it publicly or openly puts the laws, practices, and institutions at risk,” said Professor Mercer, “[but] this shuts down intelligent discussions.”
“People who are hostile toward freedom of expression see what people say or how they say it as promoting racist or sexist attitudes, thereby making work, housing, health care, and the rest more difficult for members of marginalized or historically oppressed groups to obtain. “They also think it can make research and learning more difficult, particularly for people from marginalized or historically oppressed groups, creating a leaky pipeline or delaying their entrance into the management and professional classes.”
Mercer explained that unpleasant or hostile learning environments, where people can be distracted by comments or reminded of racist and sexist attitudes, is seen as the reason post-secondary programs (especially STEM programs) have a low rate of female students.
“People argue that
[what someone says or how they say]
can lower the campus tone,” continued Mercer, “making the university less special and impressive, harming its reputation, and detracting from its mission as an institution of significant research.”
According to Mercer, hostility toward freedom of expression on campus commonly manifests in the pressure to disinvite speakers for an event or forum, in the threat of vandalism, in the refusal to join panel discussions–leading to unbalanced debates on politics and philosophy–and in defunding groups and publications that “offend.”
Mercer then outlined six arguments against the hostility freedom of expression faces on campus:
1) Valued laws, practices, and institutions are not put at much risk by what people say.
2) Going after obnoxious speech brings it more publicity, and attempts to regulate speech discredits support for the valued laws, practices, and institutions.
3) Many of the impugned ideas and arguments are not particularly bad and don’t merit the vehemence of those opposed to them (accusations of dehumanization, charges of racism and sexism).
4) A university’s image is raised by it being a place of the free and open exchange of ideas, free from censorship.
5) The cure is worse than the disease: the problems that a university will face from oversight and control are more debilitating and spirit-crushing than the problems it will face due to freedom of expression.
6) The results of university research will not be trusted if people think researchers must toe a party line and be politically partisan.
Professor Mercer linked the last response to the sensitive research regarding the Indigenous population and the high school education gap. “If one cannot cross the party line, people cannot trust [the results of university research].”
The discussion then turned to ideas of the traditional university, where the purpose of the university was to train students for managerial or professional careers and to align students’ studies with the promotion of the general good.
“In liberal study, one is concerned not only with understanding things as they are, but to understand them for one’s own reasons, reasons of evidence and argument,” said Mercer. “[One is] guided by curiosity and intrinsic interest, not only by the problems of the day.”
“The culture of liberal study is marked by a willingness to risk offending those opposed to robust freedom of expression. [Yet] even a university of liberal study needs quality control if it is to be a serious place, [where] no time [is] wasted on stupid ideas or ideas that lack support.”