Monday, April 12, 2010

Academic freedom: a tale of two cities

...and, I expect, a tale of two standards as well.

Readers will recall the shrill chorus of denunciation directed against the mild-mannered Provost of the University of Ottawa, François Houle, for daring to suggest that conservative hatemonger Ann Coulter might want to be aware of Canadian criminal legislation against hate speech--legislation that differs considerably from the latitude afforded by the Fifth First Amendment.
One might have thought he was Torquemada, given the shrieking outrage that ensued.

He sent a letter to an arriving guest. Now consider what happened at York University when an academic conference on the Middle East was planned.

I have already blogged on the gross interference by the Minister of Creationism, Gary Goodyear, in the internal workings of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, for providing funds for the conference. But today we learn of determined attempts within York University itself, notably by Board head Marshall Cohen, to derail the conference.

[E]-mails, obtained by The Globe and Mail, discuss how the university might avoid “a disaster,” by paying for the event to be moved off campus, putting forward speakers to balance the program and planting participants in the audience to moderate debate.


Later, [Cohen] adds, "Freedom of speech and academic freedom are essential to what we are,” before listing options for “managing and mitigating the risks."

In another e-mail a few days, Mr. Cohen asks [York President Mamdouh] Shoukri, "Can the conference organizers enforce some discipline on the speakers – and are they strong enough to do so? Can we disinvite known hate mongers, if we have any on the program? Is this censorship?"

In yet another e-mail to [University Provost Patrick] Monahan, Mr. Cohen discusses "Plan B," to move the event off-campus, saying of talks with organizers, "I can only assume that you put the fear of all 3 gods involved here into them! Good work."

Organizers are speaking out after the release of a report by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, clearly a name to conjure with in certain quarters. The report was ponderous but inconsequential, addressing none of the organizers' concerns.

As the report indicates, organizers were forced to hire their own lawyer at their own expense to force a retraction from B'nai Brith, which had made the bogus charge that a "Holocaust-denier" had been invited as a speaker.
The University refused to assist. Several instances of heavy-handed administrative treatment of the organizers are noted, but Iacobucci sees no reason for any further investigation of the events surrounding the conference.

I would invite readers to compare and contrast: a mild letter sent to a speaker in Ottawa, versus several heavy-handed attempts to drive the York conference from the campus, select some of its speakers and plant "moderators" in the audience--not to mention disinviting "known hatemongers, if we have any on the program."

One can imagine the yowling from the Usual Suspects if any such thing were done to a conservative conference. We've already heard
that U of O Provost Houle's minor admonition was a dreadful imposition, nothing less than a brutal assault on free speech. But in this case, expect only silence--or support for the York administration.

[H/t Marky Mark for the Iacobucci report link]

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