Locke, Newman, Free Speech and Academic Freedom

April 2023

If you were to look up the word “enlightenment,” you would be met with a definition that states – the act or means of enlightening. To understand how this fits into the endeavor of creating a society that is built upon John Locke’s understanding of being free, it is important to look to the synonyms of this word – to understand, to be insightful, to educate, to learn and to know.

To understand just how essential John Locke’s definition is, just place the words ‘the freedom’ before each of those synonyms. Only then will it be possible to build a robust and free education system from kindergarten through to university in Western Canada that could be free from ideological and political influence.

In post-secondary education, there should be no internal regulation of lawful speech and universities should not distort the curriculum on ideological grounds or investigate staff or students for the lawful expression of their views.

In the Constitution of Canada, education, including post-secondary education, and all its infrastructure falls within provincial jurisdiction. When looking at the entire university system that exists today across Canada, you will find a homogenous system with little difference in either administration or curriculum. The only province that stands out as distinct and unique is Quebec and their CEGEP academic structure.

If Western Canadian populists and conservatives wish to build a society that is founded upon the ideas put forth by John Locke, they will have to overhaul completely the post-secondary education system in their provinces or territories.

Thomas Hobbes wanted an education system that emphasised that human nature is selfish and base. This is the philosophical perspective found in post-secondary institutions in Western Canada today. Progressive ideologues have saturated and populated the university’s internal administrative\executive architecture to the point where it is best defined as one that is of homogenous conformity. This conformity has also been extended to the various subjects that are taught. Combined, the two have fulfilled the ideal of a banal education that Hobbes put forth many years ago.

Many western populists would like to just scrap the whole post-secondary system and start over, but that is neither desirable nor feasible. Even if around every corner of the university lurks ‘Leviathan,’ what will be required to sustain and grow a new Lockian society is a process of gradual change. The reasons for this are twofold. On the one hand, gradual change will allow these institutions to retain the best and brightest. And on the other, it will give those who do not agree with this new direction ample time to find gainful employment elsewhere.

In order to offer the freest post-secondary education system possible, it would also be prudent to look around the rest of the Western world and cherry-pick the best from all known systems. To that end, what better way to begin this process than by asking a simple question…

How far has the Canadian university system fallen when compared to what John Henry Newman proclaimed as the principles and virtues of university life in The Idea of a University? Those principles and virtues being: 1) the nature of knowledge; 2) the role of religious belief in higher education; and 3) a defense of liberal education for university students.

Many Western Canadian populists and conservatives would agree that the teachings of John Henry Newman and John Locke are nowhere to be seen. Where Truth once stood tall, now stands ideology. Trigger warnings and fears of micro-aggressions exist where there once was open and free debate. Not to mention the fact that today’s academic standards have fallen so far into the pit of Social or Education Justice that anyone who can fulfill just the bare minimum that is required to achieve a PhD, and acknowledges that they are ‘woke,’ can begin teaching.

The first step in redesigning a post-secondary system in line with Newman’s ideas is to understand that there is a difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom. In English speaking countries like the United Kingdom, freedom of speech is derived from the 1998 Human Rights Act. In the United States, freedom of speech is attributable to the First Amendment. And in Canada, the definition of freedom is given by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In each of these circumstances, emphasis is on freedom from, not freedom to. What Isaiah Berlin conceptualized as negative and positive freedoms, respectively.

In many respects, Canadian academic freedom has for years been defined as tilting toward the idea of a negative freedom, where the emphasis is placed on the right to be free from something (negative liberty), and not a freedom to do something (positive liberty). But in recent years, the Canadian post-secondary institution has drifted away from both versions of freedom.

In place of freedom, a new academic quasi-right has emerged. Some call it a right not to be offended. This new quasi-right does not gain authority from anything found in the Canadian Constitution or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It comes from the Hobbesian administrative and bureaucratic structure that oversees the daily functioning of the university.

From the diversity office and the equity officer, to the quasi-tribunals found within the university that mete out punishment for transgressions against administrative policy, this unlawful right consumes the academic freedom and the free speech that once existed. The recent upheaval at the University of Lethbridge is a prime example of this lawless attitude.

To address these unacceptable situations regarding free speech on campus and the lack of academic freedom, we must will take a bold step in an unfamiliar direction. John Locke, if he were still alive, would argue that both academic freedom and freedom of speech must be treated as fundamental rights. Thus, it will require provincial legislation in the form of a statute dedicated to protecting the Academic Natural Rights and Freedoms of all students.

Within this restatement, there are three specific principles that must anchor any definition enacted by such legislation regarding academic freedom. 1) There needs to be far reaching individual rights to expressive freedoms for members of the academic community for both staff and students. 2) Collective and institutional autonomy for the academy in general, including faculties and research units, must be strictly enforced. 3) And public authorities must be obliged to respect, protect and promote academic freedom.

In crafting such a piece of legislation, it would be wise to look to the United Kingdom for guidance. Over the past two years, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has been slowly working its way through parliament. When crafting our own Canadian version, much can be learned from this document.

No group or organization has worked harder than the Free Speech Union of the United Kingdom to see that this bill is passed into U.K. law. From the very beginning, the FSU has worked tirelessly to enshrine within this legislation a form of recourse that is anchored in tort law.

But is tort law and civil litigation the best mechanism? First, since this new Canadian academic charter creates a set of rights and freedoms, the proper place for adjudication would be one where not only is ‘the rule of law’ enforced, but where there also exists a specific knowledge and experience that deals with fundamental infringements of the Human Rights and Freedoms expressed within the Canadian Charter. Furthermore, by adding a civil litigation statute to the academic charter, it could not only create an atmosphere of political confusion, but one where jurisdiction could also become an issue.

Thus, it is this writer’s opinion that the appropriate forum is a repurposed Provincial Human Rights Commission. To ensure that there is limited interference with this new academic charter of natural rights and freedoms and its enforcement, it will be necessary to invoke the notwithstanding clause.

When all is said and done, enlightenment in Western Canada and the Territories not only means a right to learn in an environment free of coercion, but also the right to study any subject in the way or direction the pupil wishes, without the threat of sanction or penalty. Naturally, those who wish to make such changes are faced with the problem of finding likeminded people and kindred souls within today’s university setting. For those interested in such an endeavor, a good starting place would be the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS).