July 2, 2003
Dear Rector Patry:
I am writing to you as president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. We are a national organization of scholars whose goals are to promote academic freedom in teaching, research, and scholarship and to uphold the merit principle as the basis of academic decision-making regarding students and faculty. For further information, please visit our website at: www.safs.ca.
In an article published in University Affairs (May 2003), Moira Farr reported that the University of Ottawa adopted a policy whereby “no campus group may put out information that is disparaging to a country or state” (p. 15). In a subsequent issue of University Affairs (June 2003), Professor Kenneth H.W. Hilborn wrote to the editor and correctly pointed out that “this rule is astonishing. There are many states in the world that deserve to be disparaged for their record on human rights.”
Is it, in fact, the case that the University of Ottawa has such a rule? If so, would you kindly elaborate the reasoning for this rule. I was told that University Affairs had requested a response from you to Professor Hilborn’s letter, with the understanding that your response would be published in the same issue as Professor Hilborn’s letter. That did not happen and I’m wondering whether your letter will appear in a later issue of University Affairs or whether you have decided not to respond.
A rule against negative characterizations of countries or states is unwise. Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of debate at universities, and without such freedom the paramount mission of the university to seek the truth is harmed. It is self-defeating to censor critical speech or to intimidate individuals into avoiding timely discussions of, for example, the actions of nations.
As has been said before by many, the appropriate response to harsh or incorrect statements is more speech, which clarifies, analyses, or rebuts prior statements. Students and faculty at the university should be respected and treated as adults who not only
can cope with speech that expresses views contrary to their own but who can add to the debate. Indeed, it is essential that individuals learn to deal with offensive speech in a civil manner without resorting to censorship or violence. As Professor Hilborn con-cluded “Freedom of expression is surely preferable to an enforced appearance of harmony.” We concur.
We would appreciate hearing your views on this matter. We will publish our letter to you and your response on our website.
Clive Seligman, SAFS President.