Skip to main content

Shama Rangwala is a lecturer in women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta.

In May of 2019, in the face of an alleged crisis in which the newly elected Alberta United Conservative Party (UCP) claimed that certain ideas and opinions weren’t being welcomed on campuses in the province, the government announced it would soon require postsecondary institutions in the province to adopt the Chicago Principles for free speech.

Drafted in 2014 in a different national and legal context, the Chicago Principles statement argues: “It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

It draws the line at illegal hate speech. But this limit does not go far enough to account for the myriad and crucial ways the university produces, legitimizes and disseminates knowledge. Research institutions have long used peer review – as imperfect a process as it is – to give legitimacy to knowledge that is grounded in facts and established methodologies, such as falsifiable hypotheses and verifiable experiments.

Degrees granted by a recognized institution legitimize those who have demonstrated knowledge in particular fields. Teachers must have proven competency and expertise in order to educate others. In short, the university fundamentally regulates what kinds of knowledge are legitimate, and would cease to exist as such without these mechanisms. After all, the motto of the University of Alberta is Quaecumque vera: “whatsoever is true,” not “whatsoever meets the legal definitions of allowable speech.”

Freedom of speech and academic freedom are not the same, and censorship is imposed generally by the state, not in delineated spaces such as the university. While everyone is free to speak within legal limits, not everyone is entitled to a platform or institutional legitimacy.

In 1998, leading scientific journal The Lancet published Andrew Wakefield’s findings that vaccines cause autism; the journal later retracted the article, stating that it was “utterly false” as fellow researchers investigated his work, and Mr. Wakefield was struck from the British medical register. Nevertheless, his speech has in no way been curtailed; he has since made a career out of spreading anti-vax propaganda.

In Canada, a group of faculty along with the Canadian Historical Association wrote statements discrediting then-UNB professor Ricardo Duchesne, who espouses white genocide, an influential conspiracy theory that demographic change portends the end of the white race. Their speech would be defensible under the Chicago Principles, but their views already enjoy a wide platform without a university endorsement.

Indeed, the Chicago Principles are symptoms of a looming crisis of academic freedom: they threaten to defang the university as an institution of critique.

Free speech has long been weaponized by the powerful throughout history; local Albertans might not remember that Ku Klux Klan leader John J. Maloney’s 1932 visit to Edmonton was heralded as a “free speech special.” And the language of the statement has enough ambiguity to sound like “common sense;" one might suggest that the Chicago Principles could actually protect critical discourses and fields.

However, the reality is that legitimizing all speech in the university is a direct threat to disciplines such as gender studies and critical race studies, as they are foundationally against oppressive positions, and by definition delegitimize that kind of speech in research and pedagogy, even and especially as it proliferates in public discourse. This is the rightful power of institutions, and allowing a free-for-all on any and all voices delegitimizes the critical, fact-based function of the university in our politics, culture and society.

If indeed all opinions are valid and legitimized, then the university is reduced to a marketplace of ideas where, for example, white-genocide theory and the theory of evolution are equal commodities.

A “free speech crisis” on campus is a red herring, and one too often deployed by right-wing governments around the world, when the real threat is to academic freedom. Under Viktor Orban, Hungary has banned gender studies by citing free-speech concerns; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has withdrawn funding for sociology and philosophy while actively encouraging students to report professors who are critical of his government.

Both the academy and the media have the fundamental freedom and crucial responsibility to speak truth to power. It is no surprise that both their rights to do so are under attack. We must come together to fight for our institutions amid efforts to diminish the importance of fact and critique.

Keep your opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe