Academics Fear Speaking Freely In Canada

Academics fear speaking freely in Canada
Political scientists worried about 'legal jeopardy'

Kevin Libin
National Post
Published: Saturday, August 23, 2008

A group of U. S. professors launched a campaign this week protesting plans by a prominent political science organization to hold its annual conference in Toronto next year, claiming that Canada's restrictions on certain forms of speech puts controversial academics at risk of being prosecuted.

Bradley Watson, professor of American and Western political thought at Pennsylvania's St. Vincent College, said he will present a petition calling for the American Political Science Association (APSA) to re-evaluate its selection of Toronto for its 2009 conference at this year's annual meeting, taking place over the Labour Day weekend in Boston.

His protest has garnered support from dozens of professors across the United States, including prominent scholars such as Princeton University legal philosopher Robert P. George and Harvard University's Harvey Mansfield.

“Our belief is that the APSA should choose its sites carefully, with particular regard for questions of freedom of speech and conscience,” Mr. Watson told the National Post by e-mail. “We therefore believe Canada to be a problematic destination.”

Mr. Watson said that professors signing the petition are concerned that recent human rights commission investigations into Maclean's and Western Standard magazines over articles concerning Islam, and the conviction of pastor Stephen Boisson, who was ordered by Alberta's human rights tribunal in May to cease publicizing criticisms of homosexuality, suggest that professors risk being chilled from discussing important academic subjects, or ending up in legal trouble. Mr. Watson said he plans to distribute hundreds of buttons to attendees at the Boston conference reading “Toronto 2009, Non!”

Several professors in the working group behind the protest “have written in areas that seem particularly disfavoured by the Canadian legal establishment,” Mr. Watson said. “We are uncertain of the extent of the legal jeopardy that APSA members might place themselves in should they make public arguments in Canada, or post those arguments online, concerning hot-button issues like homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or the nature of the Islamist threat to Western civilization.”

The American Political Science Association, whose members include both American and Canadian academics, is the oldest and largest organization of political science professors. Next month's annual meeting, expected to draw roughly 7,000 political scientists, will be its 104th. The program includes such discussions as Terrorism and Human Rights; Varying Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage; and Missing Alliances and (Un)expected Transformations in the Politics of Islam.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the working group behind the protest said: “The nature of radical Islamism and the relationship of public morality and homosexual conduct are issues of vital public importance” and that “all political scientists have a professional interest in a full and open scholarly debate” on these topics. The group called it “unseemly” for APSA to “turn a blind eye to [Canadian] attacks on freedom of speech” and “unacceptable to risk exposing its own members to them.”

APSA standards for selecting meeting sites include “protection of academic freedom, equitable access to opportunity, and a commitment to non-discrimination,” but Mr. Watson said Canada does not satisfy that test. “Our belief is that most Americans–even APSA members–have no idea how precarious the rights of freedom of speech and conscience are in Canada,” Mr. Watson said. Earlier this year, APSA reevaluated a decision to hold its 2012 meeting in New Orleans in light of complaints by some members that same-sex marriage is not legally recognized in Louisiana. The organization's council voted in June not to overturn the decision.

The Toronto petition states that: “Whereas members of the Association ought to be able at the 2009 annual meeting to present research and argument on controversial topics, such as public policy concerning homosexuality or the character of and proper response to terrorist elements acting in the name of Islam, without fear of legal repercussions of any kind we petition the Council and staff of the APSA to take all steps necessary to ensure that academic freedom and free speech, even on controversial topics such as these, are not threatened at the 2009 annual meeting, including soliciting legal advice and seeking the assurance of the Government of Canada and local authorities that the civil rights and liberties of members to free speech and academic freedom will be secure.”