May 2, 2001
Dear President Marsden and Dean Hogg:
I am writing on behalf of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship concerning a report in yesterday's National Post, headlined "Osgoode Hall apologizes for anti-Islam article." Our society is committed to defending academic freedom in research and teaching and the merit principle in decisions about faculty and students. You can learn more about our organization at our website: www.safs.niagara.com.
The report in the National Post stated a) that officials at York University have apologized for the article, b) that they have initiated an investigation because of complaints about the article, c) that President Marsden has written to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a lobby group based in Washington, D.C., to "inform them proceedings against the student have begun," and d) that Dean Hogg said "the university is investigating complaints that the article breached the school's code of non-academic conduct that prohibits hatemongering."
Our Society defends freedom of speech. It is our belief that the free exchange of ideas is essential to the proper mission of a university, which is the pursuit of truth. Censorship, intimidation, and the threat of sanctions for undesired speech are almost always wrong in concept and frequently ineffective and counterproductive in practice.
We have read the article in question by Mr. Papasortiriou in the Obiter Dicta (March 12, 2001), as well as his follow-up article on March 19. We have also read the article (March 19) written by Mr. Shahidsaless criticizing Mr. Papasortiriou, and the letter to the editor by Dean Hogg, dated March 19.
Though Mr. Papasortiriou's article may have been offensive to many Muslims, it appears it was written essentially to express displeasure at life in an Islamic state, and not to incite violence or hatred toward anyone. While we understand the concern for individuals who may have been offended by the reasoning or language in the article, the proper response is to reply with considered arguments explaining why Mr. Papasortiriou is wrong in reason or tone. The published criticism by Mr. Shahidsaless and Dean Hogg serves that purpose. The launching of an investigation, with the threat of a disciplinary tribunal that might impose a penalty of expulsion from the university is, in our view, a reaction that reflects poorly on Osgoode Hall's and the University's commitment to reasoned debate in a free society. Mr. Papasortiriou's comments fall clearly within the bounds of academic freedom. If speech is protected only when no one is offended then speech is not protected. The adult students who read the pro and con arguments in this debate will make up their own minds as to who is right or wrong. Osgoode Hall and the University should not condescend to them by having senior administrators dictate what is appropriate speech or argument.
As a consequence of your actions, we are gravely concerned about the freedom of speech and debate at Osgoode Hall. We wonder how many students at York University will now be second-guessing whether their remarks conform to the administration's view of acceptable speech. Instead of apologizing for your students' remarks, you should be encouraging them to express themselves clearly, and to think critically about the opinions of others.
We urge you to stop your investigation of this matter.
Clive Seligman, President