Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is a remarkable occasion, for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, for the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), and for me personally. For the Justice Centre, it’s the first time the George Jonas Freedom Award has been given to academics, or to a group; and the first time it has been celebrated in three cities across Canada. For SAFS, it is a mark of honour, appreciation, and alliance. It also reassures us that our efforts have had an impact beyond our specific actions. For me personally, it links together two of my favourite organizations, both of which have upheld values that I hold dear.
Not only that. The previous recipients of the award, Mark Steyn and Christie Blatchford, have been authors whose wisdom, way with words, and wit, have given me hours of pleasure and insight. I was looking forward to meeting Rex Murphy, another admired commentator, and I greatly regret his inability to be here in person. But at least we will hear and see him at a distance; and we have the added stimulation of hearing Ezra Levant, another person whose writing and videos have enlivened Canada’s political debates. And I am particularly happy to meet Lindsay Shepherd and the other students present, who encourage me to believe that our cause will survive us.
Last is my shared background with George Jonas himself. Like him, I was born in Hungary, in the same year, 1935. Like him, in childhood I survived the Holocaust in hiding. I should emphasize that these coincidences were the frosting on the cake, not the substance: there is another very famous and politically very active Holocaust survivor from Hungary, also named George, with whom I feel no empathy whatsoever. As a devoted reader of George Jonas’s columns in the National Post, I feel close to him because of his brilliant writing, keen perception, and above all, his unswerving devotion to the cause of freedom.
Mark Mercer, John Carpay and Jonathan Kay at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms award dinner, Toronto, 1 October 2020
That devotion is something that the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has firmly embraced since our founding in 1992. One impetus for that event was the controversy that erupted over the publications of John Philippe Rushton, then Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. Drawing on multiple sources, of varying credibility, Rushton argued for innate racial differences in a wide range of physiological, psychological, and behavioural factors. Along with some searching and legitimate scientific criticism of his methodology, sources, data analysis, and interpretation, the 1990s version of a Twitter mob descended upon him, including demands that he be fired.
Newly formed by academics across Canada, SAFS set its course by the same compass it still maintains. One of our early presidents and moving spirits was the late Professor John J. Furedy, a psychologist at the U of T, who was yet another Hungarian Holocaust survivor. We gathered and wrote and spoke to protect the academic freedom of both Rushton and his critics, while opposing the pressure of those who attacked him because they didn’t like his conclusions, and those who argued by impugning what they thought to be his racist motives. This scenario has been played many times since, too often with little justification or validity.
Academic freedom means that university faculty and students have the right to study, investigate, analyze, speak, and publish within legal limits and without official penalty from any seat of power. The argument in favour of academic freedom was then, and is now, that the best scholarship and research grows out of the freedom to disagree with current orthodoxy and dogma, whether in science or any other field. It is freedom in the service of scholarship, which explains our name. In May, 1956, Chairman Mao famously said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”; ironically, that could be our own motto, but we are gardeners who try to protect those flowerbeds rather than, as Mao and his followers did, uproot the blossoms and pour cement over the soil.
I think our role has become increasingly important in this era of social media trolls, cancel culture, de-platforming, motive mongering, identity politics, and the global reach and influence of those whose concept of freedom is the freedom of all of us to support their ideology.
An increasingly overt threat to scholarship is the growing trend to restrict academic appointments and other opportunities to people of the “correct” sociopolitical opinions or the “correct” demographic categories. In the Joe McCarthy era, there was a strong political trend to force professors to preserve their jobs by signing a loyalty oath, usually focusing on not supporting Communism; these attempts resulted in a storm of refusals, resignations, and counterattacks, as well as some dismissals. In our own time, universities are demanding that applicants for faculty positions not only sign a loyalty oath to support specific “social justice” causes and agendas, but also to include in their job applications evidence of their loyalty to those precepts. So far, there has been no widespread furor against this dramatic intrusion, although SAFS raises an objection each time we encounter it.
There have also been numerous positions advertised as being open only to applicants of a specific sex or a specific ethnic origin. Those who defend such restrictions claim that diversity leads to better scholarship; but whether the presence of more skin colours or different physiological apparatus increases intellectual diversity and improves scholarship has not been tested, and many of its most vocal supporters argue that even to suggest testing it is prejudicial.
SAFS is unswervingly opposed to all attempts to punish what George Orwell called “thoughtcrime.” We have been involved in several high-profile controversies focusing on these developments, such as those involving Rushton and more recently, Jordan Peterson; but most of the incidents that we have addressed were known to few people outside or even inside academia. To give you an idea, in the past five years we have intervened in almost 50 separate cases dealing with constraints on freedom of speech and/or violations of academic values. We defend freedom and scholarship regardless of which political or social viewpoint is being attacked.
We have responded to firings, demotions, and pressures to resign; administrative censures; hiring policies based on demographic factors; barring certain speakers and disinviting others based on their ideas; and attempts to establish university policy as a mental straitjacket. We oppose the nefarious requirement that a student group which invites a controversial speaker has to pay for extra security. The charge is often so high as to make the invitation unaffordable. In this way, controversial views are banned without overtly infringing on the freedom of those wanting to hear them. But campus security is the administration’s responsibility; and if it is to be transferred, it should be to the potential or actual disruptors, not to their intended victims.
Our interventions, which are usually examples of Canada’s “soft power”, consist of letters to administrators, student governments, and the media, and are published in the SAFS Newsletter. We often have support from, e.g., the Justice Centre, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the National Association of Scholars; and shamefully seldom from the Canadian Association of University Teachers or local university Faculty Associations and Unions. We don’t bring lawsuits, or list “censured administrations,” as the American Association of University Professors does, much less organize protest meetings or demonstrations. For one thing, such tactics can end up restricting the very freedoms we were created to protect.
So, in the name of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, I thank the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms for this noble award. We look forward to continuing our joint efforts until the principles of academic freedom and integrity are accepted and respected by our institutions, from governments down to individual universities, departments, and classrooms.