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Blog December 12, 2023

Open Letter to Canadian University and College Presidents

We write to you out of concern for what is happening on many of Canada’s university and college campuses in relation to expression about the war between Israel and Palestine.

Fearful times pose special dangers for free expression. As has happened before when societies are badly divided by war, crisis, or moral panic, freedom of expression and those who rely on it come under fierce attack. This includes journalists, academics, writers, and the institutions for which they work.

We are in one of those moments currently because of the Israel-Palestine war which began when Hamas militants viciously murdered more than 1,200 Israelis followed by Israel’s response which has killed 18,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are women and children, and created what the United Nations has labelled a “humanitarian disaster.” 

Passions are high on both sides of the controversy. In universities and colleges, students, student organizations, faculty, and staff have spoken out, sometimes in fiery, emotional, extreme, and hurtful ways. During this time, we have seen a rise in threats against Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim, and Middle Eastern–origin students and faculty, with growing concerns for personal safety. We take these threats seriously and respond with compassion, as should all in the academic community. 

Emotions on campus have been stoked by many outside the university – donors publicly threatening to withdraw their funding from universities, employers threatening to fire student employees, law firms launching class action suits against multiple universities, elected politicians calling for cancellation of events in universities related to the war, corporations saying they are re-evaluating their relationship with various universities, and advocacy groups calling for the firing of faculty and backing lawsuits preventing student associations undertaking referenda of their members on the issue.

Some university administrations have responded by threatening to withdraw recognition of their student unions, by firing academic staff, by suspending students, and by preventing university-affiliated groups from holding events. These are actions not unlike what universities and colleges did during the anti-Communist cold war years in the 1940s and 1950s in Canada and the U.S. – a period about which universities have been profoundly embarrassed and most of us thought could never happen again.[1]

It is not the role of the university to wade into political matters locally or globally that extend beyond its immediate purview, which is the operations of the university itself. As the influential Kalven Committee at the University of Chicago wrote many years ago, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic… [this is] not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints…and the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.”[2]  

All students deserve equal access to education. There should be no tolerance for illegal discrimination and harassment. Universities should be committed to working with affected communities to provide support and resources, and to ensure the physical safety of all those on campus. Our aspiration should be for thoughtful and substantive discourse.

That said, efforts pressuring universities to police legal expression on campus destroy the foundation on which academic communities are built. 

A university or college cannot fulfill its societal mission of educating students and advancing knowledge if vigorous debate is disallowed and if the limits of academic freedom and extramural speech of faculty and of freedom of expression for students are set by donors, alumni, politicians, advocacy groups, or the university administration itself. Those limits are set by the law and by collective agreements which cover more than 95 percent of all university and college academic staff in Canada.

Free expression and free association are the underpinnings of our democracy. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares freedom of expression and freedom of association to be two of our four “fundamental” freedoms (the others are freedom of religion and conscience and freedom of assembly).[3] Both before the Charter[4] and afterwards[5] our courts have recognized that political expression is one of the most highly valued and important forms of free expression. 

It is troubling enough when so many in society see censorship as a shortcut to resolving difficult and divisive political, social, or cultural issues. It is more troubling when universities and colleges acquiesce to that view. In fact, censorship is a roadblock. Genuine democracy and social justice depend on an ongoing and robust public discourse about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in society—a discourse that if shut down by an offended majority or by a loud and angry minority turns society to authoritarianism. As Salman Rushdie has said, “at the heart of democracy is argument.”[6]

It is a bad time for the university and for society when universities sanction rather than defend the right to critical discourse about the most difficult issues in our world.  Universities need to be models of being open to allowing controversial expression, to fostering understanding of the concerns of the other side, and to helping the working through of differences no matter how passionately they are expressed and no matter how impossible a just solution may seem.

We urge you to uphold the best tradition of the university as a space for robust discourse and analysis and to reject calls to punish faculty, staff, students, or student groups for exercising their free expression rights.

[1] For background, see Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. Oxford University Press, 1986.

[2] Report of a faculty committee, under the chairmanship of Harry Kalven, Jr. Committee appointed by University of Chicago President George W. Beadle. Report published in the Record, Vol. I, No. 1, November 11, 1967.

[3] Constitution Act, 1982. Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2: Fundamental Freedoms.

[4] Switzman v. Elbing and A.G. of Quebec [1957] S.C.R. 285 at p. 307

[5] Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2000 SCC 57 [2000] 2 SCR 764 at 20.

[6] Quoted in Patt Morrison, “Salman Rushdie, freedom writer,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 3, 2012.