Codes of conduct threaten academic freedom in universities, visiting professor says

Distinguished visiting professor James Turk. Photo: Robert Liwanag



Staff Reporter

Academic freedom and freedom of expression on Canadian university campuses, including at Ryerson, are under siege due to subjective interpretations of “civility” policies, says one of the country’s leading experts on academic freedom.

“The best way to deal with speech you don’t like is more speech – critical speech – not the suppression of speech,” James Turk, distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, said during an inaugural address entitled “You can’t say that! Enforced civility as a threat to academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

“The right of freedom of expression is really the flipside of the right to hear and to know,” Turk said in his Nov. 13 speech to students, faculty and members of the public. “When someone’s speech is suppressed, the ability of others to hear what they have to say is denied.”

Turk said the university workplace and campus code-of-conduct policies that specifically ban harassment and discrimination are necessary and appropriate.

The threat to free speech arises, he warned, when these policies expand to include requirements for “civility” and “respect,” terms that can be interpreted subjectively. The result is that widely accepted forms of human expression, such as hyperbole, mockery, outrage and satire, risk being deemed uncivil and disrespectful, posing a threat to faculty members’ academic freedom.

“If uncivil behaviour or disrespectful behaviour becomes harassment or discrimination, it has to be dealt with aggressively. But if it does not, it’s part of what we tolerate in a democratic society,” said Turk.

Turk, the author of the recently published book Academic Freedom in Conflict: The Struggle over Free Speech Rights in the University, spent 16 years as the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which represents more than 68,000 academic and general staff nationwide. His Ryerson appointment began Sept. 1.

Turk noted that many universities have their own interpretations of the difference between civility and incivility. Ryerson’s “workplace civility and respect policy,” for instance, defines incivility as “unprofessional behaviour, rudeness, shouting or swearing, intimidation or bullying, threatening comments or behaviours/actions, unsolicited and unwelcome conduct, comment (oral or written, including email communication), gestures, actions or contact that cause offense, humiliation, or physical or emotional harm to any individual.”

“That’s a whole range of things…it’s not helpful to throw them in the same basket,” said Turk, who pointed to a number of cases that illustrate the problems raised by what he calls “enforced civility.” The Canadian cases on his list include:

Ana Isla – Isla, a sociology professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., expressed concern over the introduction of a new program that offered students volunteer placements in developing countries and had ties with many conservative Catholic groups. The two heads of the program filed a complaint about Isla under Brock’s “respectful workplace policy,” but it was dismissed. They then took the complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which also dismissed it. The complaint was later re-directed to the university, which launched an investigation that led to the case being dropped again.

“Three years of Ana Isla’s life was taken up because of this bogus use of respectful workplace policies to silence or to try to silence a viewpoint that wasn’t liked,” said Turk.

George Rammell – An art instructor at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Rammell created a large sculpture that caricatured university president Kris Bulcroft. Blathering On in Krisendom, which depicted Bulcroft and her dog wrapped in an American flag, was a response to Bulcroft’s decision to eliminate several programs, including studio arts and computer science. The sculpture was displayed on campus for four weeks until Jane Shackell, the university’s board chair, ordered it removed. It was later returned to Rammell, albeit destroyed.

Image courtesy of Inside Higher Ed.

Ken Luckhardt – A former faculty member of King’s University College at Western University in London, Ont., Luckhardt wrote a letter to the school’s president voicing concerns over plans to enact major changes to the peace studies and social justice program. Two faculty members mentioned in his letter claimed his complaint violated the university’s “respectful workplace policy,” showed a lack of respect and posed a threat to their physical safety. After an investigation, Luckhardt was banned from campus, but King’s University College later reversed its position when the CAUT intervened.

Turk said academic freedom encompasses the right of professors to criticize what goes on in their institutions and also allows them to exercise their rights as citizens without being punished by their employer.

“In the university, if we’re going to have collegial governance, if we’re going to have the institution guided in its policy by what academics think, then those academics have to be able to be free to say what they think about what’s going on, whether it’s terrible or not,” said Turk.

He urged students and faculty to consistently promote freedom of expression as a core value of their institutions, and said universities should adopt more concise language in workplace policies.

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