Thursday, October 24, 2019

Academic Freedom - redux.

David Robinson, Executive Director of CAUT, gave a plenary address at UBC's fall meeting of the faculty association.  I was able to catch most of it and the following Q&A squeezed in between one-on-one meetings with students from my Ethnographic Film Methods course.

The talk was informative in a number of ways. For one thing, there is a big legal difference between Academic Freedom (AF) in Canada vs the US. In the US  AF is protected under their First Amendment and thus is governed by notions of free expression. In Canada there is no equivalent constitutional protection. Instead, AF in Canada is governed by labour law and most of the legal presidents stem from Labour Relations Board decisions.  This means that freedom of expression issues (i.e. notions of unrestrained speech) do not apply in Canada for academics. However, there is a special protection that merits discussion.

Under labour law most every other group of employees can be fired for insubordination (criticizing one's boss or employer).  Faculty have a protected right to publicly criticize our employer (i.e. Heads, Deans, Administrators, etc.)  We can not be fired or disciplined for critiquing, or opposing the perspectives, positions, or directives of our leadership.  AF also protects "robust" debate and discussion even to the point of intemperate comments (though what was an acceptable intemperate comment was not discussed while I was at the meeting).

Robinson also noted that AF is constrained by law - i.e. faculty can't defend their expressions or actions if they involve harassment, hate speech (as legally defined),  or any other violation of provincial or federal law. This was an important point of Robinson's talk as he then turned to a discussion of respectful workplace policies which he described as attempts at legislating niceness.  If I followed his point correctly, becuase 'niceness' or civility is 'subjective' (as opposed to the 'objectivity' of law), it is an unreasonable limitation on AF.

A number of questions arose wherein speakers posed hypothetical scenarios in which they had critiqued power and then were tone policed.  Robinson responded by saying that not being nice wasn't grounds for having one's AF violated. To give him his due, he also stated several times that each situation is differnt and that generalizations don't speak to specific cases. But the gist was that civility and niceness are mechanisms of social control and therefore are insufficient as a grounds to impede or deny a faculty member's AF.

I asked a question about politics of disruption (citing the case of Alan Soroka at UBC).  An apartheid era government official had been invited to speak at UBC in the late 1970s. Soroko was part of a political demonstration that among other tactics attempted to disrupt the talk. I've written about that moment previously.  At the end of the day Soroka kept his job and UBC's senate enacted an academic policy.  Robinson's response was that the heckler's option (that's what he called it) was a violation of the speakers AF and essentially any faculty member who organizes a protest that shuts down a hate speaker would likely find themselves up the preverbal creek (my gloss).

The crux of the matter is that of civility. I would in general concur with Robinson's formulation. Yet, I have actually witnessed moments when individuals use ad hominem, disparaging, personal slights to 'critique' colleagues. Can one claim these are just cultural differences? Can one shrug it off as simply the thrust and parry of a fair fight? What are our thoughts on sexist behaviours? Is academic freedom properly deployed to justify a one person's constant interruption  of another speaker? Is a mocking tone or a clever insult acceptable? It would seem that according to some interpretations that is all acceptably protected by Academic Freedom.  Yet, I find it hard to accept that being a jerk should really be protected by academic freedom.

Each one of us, in the actually existing moments of our lives, have had moments of being angry, intemperate, uncivil, rude. Few of us do this as a regular course of events. No one should be penalized for those moments of lost composure. Perhaps our health was failing us, maybe our personal lives were in turmoil, or we were finding our workplace overly stressful. In these moments we can find ourselves in situations in which we might strike out in ways that are less than civil. There needs to be allowances for such moments. But how do we deal with those among us who use their positions, their sense of entitlement, to constantly push the boundaries of civility, to harangue, to speak disparaging, to snipe and snap, to foment rumour. Is one’s position as a faculty member sufficient to exempt one from a sense of decency in dealing with those around us? I think not.

It may be that Academic Freedom entitles jerks- I hope not. It seems to me that when one uses their academic freedom to launch barrages of personal snipes, cat calls, and disparaging critiques they may well be engaging in variant of what David Robinson called the hecklers option - and even for Robinson’s fairly liberal take on Academic Freedom the heckler’s option was not protected by Academic Freedom.

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