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The people who run Canada’s institutions of higher learning can no longer be trusted to stand up for the very principle for which those institutions exist in the first place. When faced with a choice between defending or silencing open debate on campus, they invariably pick the latter.

This cowering in the face of controversy sets the entirely wrong example for the young minds universities were invented to develop. Yet, university administrators who know better would rather give in to the dictates of cancel culture than face the wrath of those who do not.

Consider the response of University of Ottawa Arts dean Kevin Kee in the face of complaints that an art-history professor had used the N-word during an online seminar to illustrate the concept of subversive resignification, or the process by which an insult is reappropriated by those it is meant to insult. The songs of mainstream Black hip-hop artists provide ample proof of this phenomenon. But apparently this is a topic too hot to handle at the U of O.

“This language was offensive and completely unacceptable in our classrooms and on our campus,” Prof. Kee said in a statement this month after a backlash erupted on social media against art-history professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval. “Everyone at the University of Ottawa has the right to an environment free of discrimination and harassment, and the right to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The dean’s statement was highly problematic in and of itself. That someone in Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s class was offended by her use of the N-word is no excuse for its blanket prohibition in an academic setting. The professor obviously did not use it as a slur. She used it to illustrate a form of cultural expression that seeks to gut offensive words of their power to debase by reappropriating them as markers of identity. She also used the word “queer” as an example.

The U of O’s administration was having none of it, however. On Monday, president and vice-chancellor Jacques Frémont, a former head of Quebec’s human-rights commission, weighed in on the matter with this: “Members of dominant groups simply have no legitimacy to decide what constitutes a microaggression.” According to this point of view, a white professor’s right to freedom of expression comes second to the “right to dignity” of minority students.

To put these two concepts on equal footing is a sophism unacceptable from someone in Mr. Frémont’s position. Academic freedom means having the freedom to offend, even if that was most definitely not Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s intention. Mr. Frémont added insult to injury by saying that Prof. Lieutenant-Duval, who was briefly suspended from teaching this month, “could have chosen not to use the full N-word. Yet she did and is now facing the consequences.”

The consequences? What is that supposed to mean? That she was only asking for online harassment and threats directed at her by daring to treat her students as adults? If those who attacked Prof. Lieutenant-Duval are unwilling to discuss difficult topics, and risk being offended in the process, perhaps a university classroom is the wrong place for them.

The controversy at the U of O, which bills itself as the world’s largest bilingual university, has particularly reverberated in Quebec. Many of the online attacks directed at Prof. Lieutenant-Duval referenced the fact that she is francophone; some used well-worn slurs to do so.

“What also troubles me is seeing the university throw this professor to the wolves of aggressive militants who use violent language against her and [other] francophones. I can’t help but see a certain cowardice on the part of the administration,” Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault wrote in a Facebook post defending Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s academic freedom.

“It’s as if there is a censorship police,” Premier François Legault added on Tuesday, saying he would take up the matter with his Ontario counterpart, Doug Ford.

Prof. Lieutenant-Duval needs better advocates than these two. Mr. Legault’s government has stubbornly resisted calls to recognize systemic racism in provincial institutions, on the grounds that doing so would be tantamount to labelling Quebec a racist society. His government’s attempt to make a cause célèbre of Prof. Lieutenant-Duval’s case only muddies the water.

Still, francophones also make up most of the nearly three dozen U of O professors who signed a letter defending Prof. Lieutenant-Duval, suggesting many of her anglophone colleagues are too afraid to speak up on her behalf. After all, there would be “consequences.”

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