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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Paging Stanley Fish

Via Facebook, here's a story for those who are interested in university free speech and academic freedom issues.  I will try (unsuccessfully, I suspect) to refrain from editorializing as I describe the case.  I've read some related news items, but I'm not vouching for the factual accuracy of the description of the story at the Facebook link.

University groups and assorted hangers-on across Canada and elsewhere are holding something called Israeli Apartheid Week.  A branch of this group at Carleton University, in Ottawa, attempted to put up posters around campus advertising the event.  The poster, which is being used elsewhere as well, is a cartoon depicting an Israeli military helicopter firing a rocket at a child.  It's not subtle, but neither is it unusual for heated political discourse.  The posters were apparently ordered to be taken down by the university's "Equity Services" department (I tried not to editorialize, but some things demand the use of distancing quotation marks), on the grounds that they "could be seen to incite others to infringe rights protected in the Ontario Human Rights Code" and were "insensitive to the norms of civil discourse in a free and democratic society."

The students, of course, are outraged.  And rightly so.  The posters, inflammatory as they may be, are clearly standard political speech.  They may not be civil, but they're certainly well within the norms of "civil discourse in a free and democratic society" -- or at least the kinds of free and democratic societies that value robust, uninhibited and wide-open debate.  That the Human Rights Code was cited against them suggests not only the obvious dangers of the use of human rights laws as applied to speech acts, but their obvious susceptibility to abuse and selective invocation.

There are some amusing twists, however.  The students apparently shy away from the obvious conclusion that the use of human rights codes in situations involving speech are generally suspect; rather, they argue that the "poster depicts a situation that has a factual basis and its intention is clearly to invite people to a lecture series," so the poster is neither an incitement nor a violation of civil discourse.  (I hope they will be equally forgiving of similar posters that meet the same conditions, but with the names reversed!)

Second, the group makes some additional complaints of its own.  It complains that the university is practicing a double standard because the university's president refused to condemn the Israeli bombing of a Gazan university.  And it argues that the university has "taken a biased political stand on the Israel-Palestine conflict" because the university condemned the movement for an academic boycott of Israel, and because it has rejected the request of "students and faculty at Carleton" to "hold a public debate on the issue to allow the Carleton community to determine the most responsible course of action."

This isn't quite incoherent, but it is silly.  Refusing to support the academic boycott is no more or less "biased" than refusing to take down inflammatory posters.  Both positions do indeed take a stand, but they are both stands that the university ought to take.  As for the idea that the university must bend to the will of the students and faculty and hold a public debate -- I suspect that what they actually want is a public vote -- I have to get a little Fishy here in saying, nonsense.  The university is a "community" in some important senses, but it isn't a democracy, and even to the limited extent that it is, there is no universal suffrage.  Students certainly don't get to make these decisions -- and thank God.  Nor, in many areas of university governance, do the faculty -- and I again say thank God.  Carleton should have allowed the posters, but it should also oppose the academic boycott, for the same reasons; and although I see little wrong in holding a public meeting on the issue, it is under no obligation to subject its decision to oppose the boycott to a "democratic" decision-making process.  Academic freedom is a substantive value, and that value includes opposing academic boycotts; academic freedom does not, on the other hand, require democratic deliberation by all the stakeholders in a university.  

Incidentally, I note that Israeli Apartheid Week is sponsored by, among others, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and some units of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.  Now there's a proper use of public union resources.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 26, 2009 at 10:06 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I wonder if the Carleton administrators were spooked by recent events at York University, wherein a mob of pro-Palestinian students chased down a group of Jewish students and forced them to barricade themselves inside the campus Hillel until they could be escorted out under police protection.

I disagree with the decision to take down the posters as well. But anti-Israel politics at Canadian universities are teetering on the precipice, and I don't blame the university here for being a bit nervous.

Posted by: David Schraub | Feb 26, 2009 11:13:53 PM

So here's the problem. If someone had put up similarly inflammatory posters that related to Muslims, say "anti-terrorism week," with a caricature of a Muslim blowing himself up on a packed school bus, these same students would be the first to run to the Canadian Human Rights authorities, as various Muslim interest groups and individuals have done previously. So, you're right that the posters should be allowed, but not, if, say, the university would ban the Mohammed cartoons. "Offensive" speech shouldn't be restricted, but if it is, it needs to be done even-handedly.

Posted by: JD | Feb 26, 2009 10:29:52 PM


See what happens when you take the Canadian out of Canada for too long :)

As you probably recall from your days as a Canadian law student, this matter also raises constitutional issues surrounding the "freedom of association" under section 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To me, this issue smacks of Lavigne v. OPSEU, which considered whether a union member, who must pay union dues to a union that supports a political cause the member found offensive, had his freedom of association infringed thereby. That case concerned, of course, union political support for the (socialist) New Democratic Party, but I can see parallels with the academic boycott of Israel supported by CUPE.

In any event, I agree with you that this is not a proper use of union resources.

Your fellow Canuck (though certainly not a Vancouver Canucks fan!),


Posted by: Len Rotman | Feb 26, 2009 4:35:20 PM

Thanks for the additional information, Len, as well as the reminder that Canadian faculty members may also be union members. (I should have remembered, given the mishegoss at York University!) That suggests that I am wrong to criticize CUPE for being busybodies, although clearly I agree with its substantive position, if it in fact officially supports the academic boycott, and I still think this is probably outside the scope of the union's legitimate concerns.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 26, 2009 11:18:44 AM

Hi Paul,

There was a demonstration by CUPE on the academic boycott this past weekend in Windsor, which was led by CUPE president Sid Ryan. Your American readers may not realize how much this issue directly affects universities in Canada, such as the University of Windsor, since many university staff (and sometimes part-time or adjunct faculty) are CUPE members. This also affects unionized faculties, like ours (and most others in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada), which generally stand in solidarity with CUPE workers, but which have difficulty supporting this kind of action.

Thanks for raising this with your readers.


Posted by: Len Rotman | Feb 26, 2009 10:52:38 AM

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