January 18, 2011
Mr. Matt Anderson, President
Saint Mary's University Students' Association
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Dear Mr. Anderson and Members of the Students’ Association:
I am writing to you as president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. We are a national organization of university faculty members and interested others who are dedicated to the defense of academic freedom and reasoned debate. For further information, please visit our website at www.safs.ca.
According to reports we have received from students and faculty members at Saint Mary’s, and according to articles in The Journal, the campus newspaper, on 30 November 2010 you ordered a student society to remove a sign from their display. You wrote in justification of your order that because the “absolutist” message conveyed by the sign offended some students you needed to interfere with the peaceful expression of opinion in order to serve your organization’s mission to “maximize the positive university experience” of Saint Mary’s students.
We think it unfortunate that officers of the Saint Mary’s University Students’ Association have the power to vet and censor students’ communications. That aside, it is hard to see how ordering signs down is consistent with your organization’s goal of maximizing positive university experiences. Ordering signs down contributes to a climate of intolerance to contrary ideas that is incompatible with the integrity and success of the Academy. The Academy is the one institution in society that is dedicated to the discovery and transmission of truth. Experience teaches us that the truth cannot be found without unfettered debate over conflicting ideas. In order to accomplish this goal, advocates of opposing positions must be encouraged to challenge each other in vigorous and reasoned debate that will sharpen the issues and allow free individuals to choose among competing views.
What your action has accomplished is not the promotion of debate critical to a healthy university but instead the shortchanging of Saint Mary’s students by restricting their exposure to a point of view. That some Saint Mary’s students claim to be offended by a statement is not any reason to deny people a platform to voice their views. Further, you have laid a basis for some future council to deny support to other groups, including groups whose aims you personally agree with. Much better that all have their say and the winners of the argument be the ones with the best evidence, logic, and ideas rather than the ones with the biggest sticks.
We call on you to state publicly that you erred in ordering the sign removed, and that you show that you have confidence in the student body at Saint Mary’s University to respond appropriately to expressions of claims and policies with which they disagree, without the heavy hand of the Student Association interfering with their ability to deal with disagreements themselves.
Clive Seligman, President.