American Political Scientists Fear Presenting Their Work in Canada

By August 27, 2008

Beware of Canada, where academic freedom is in jeopardy. That’s the message of a growing number of eminent scholars within the American Political Science Association (APSA) who have signed a petition expressing concern about presenting their work in Toronto, the expected location of the 2009 APSA conference. Here’s the key part of the petition, which speaks for itself:

[...] whereas Canada’s Human Rights Commissions (HRCs) have recently sought to suppress speech and impose legal penalties on speakers for expressing opinions on issues ranging from the morality of homosexual conduct and the question of legal recognition of same-sex unions to the threat to freedom posed by violent extremists acting in the name of Islam speech that, according to all accounts, would be protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States;

And whereas, while we know of no direct suppression of academic freedom that has yet occurred in Canada, yet the writ of Canada’s HRCs runs without evident limit to encompass any speech, academic or otherwise, to which potential complainants take "offense" and whereas, the arbitrariness and procedurally unconstrained practices of the HRCs create an air of uncertainty regarding whose speech, on what subjects, before what audiences, will be targeted next;

And whereas members of the Association ought to be able at the 2009 annual meeting to present research and argument on controversial topics, such as public policy concerning homosexuality or the character of and proper response to terrorist elements acting in the name of Islam, without fear of legal repercussions of any kind,

THEREFORE we petition the Council and staff of the APSA to take all steps necessary to ensure that academic freedom and free speech, even on controversial topics such as these, are not threatened at the 2009 annual meeting, including soliciting legal advice and seeking the assurance of the Government of Canada and local authorities that the civil rights and liberties of members to free speech and academic freedom will be secure.

The petition has been noted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the National Association of Scholars, and the Association for the Study of Free Institutions (ASFI), among others. See also this statement on the ASFI website for additional background on the tension between Canadian law and free expression, which FIRE’s Kelly Sarabyn also has discussed here.

FIRE does not take cases concerning academic freedom in Canada, but this petition is a reminder of the importance of academic freedom in the United States. Just ask Columbia University Law School Professor George Fletcher, whose dean told him that an exam question he gave in his criminal law class about an abused woman was possibly "unlawful" sexual harassment. Or ask Brandeis University Professor Donald Hindley, whose provost placed a monitor in his classroom after he critiqued the use of the term "wetbacks" in a relevant class on Latin American politics. In the United States, abuses of academic freedom are less often camouflaged in terms of human rights and more often camouflaged as "harassment" or "civility" codes.

For more information on the APSA petition, inquirers are directed to contact APSA member (and dual citizen of the United States and Canada) Bradley Watson.