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Lise Ravary: Quebec is defending academic freedom, not slurs

Bill 32 protects “the right of every person to engage freely and without doctrinal, ideological or moral constraint” in places of higher education.

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must be aware of the controversy over free speech in universities that began in the United States and is now spreading everywhere, including Quebec.

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Amid pressure to be progressive, many places of higher learning have chosen to tolerate a new culture of victimhood, real or imaginary, inside their institutions, allowing radicalized students and professors to monitor academic speech, kill debate in case it offends someone and weaponize knowledge to impose, in my opinion, Neo-Marxist world views.

In response to fears that academic freedom of speech is under fire, the Quebec government tabled Bill 32 to protect what it defines as “the right of every person to engage freely and without doctrinal, ideological or moral constraint” in places of higher education.

“Classrooms are not safe spaces; they are spaces for debate,” said Minister of Higher Education Danielle McCann. She said “any word” can be spoken in a classroom if used respectfully in an academic context.

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Discussions about freedom in academia began in earnest in Quebec when Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, who teaches history and theory of art at University of Ottawa, said the N-word in class, using it as an example of how communities can reclaim words once used contemptuously .

One student denounced her professor online, sharing Lieutenant-Duval’s personal co-ordinates, an ugly practice called doxing.

Many Quebecers sided with her, but the part-time professor, who apologized profusely, was suspended, dragged in the mud by some students and faculty. Rector Jacques Frémont contributed this gem: “members of dominant groups simply have no legitimacy to decide what constitutes a micro-aggression.”

In a letter, 34 colleagues came to her defense and denounced the university’s lack of support for its employee. They agreed that racism and unconscious discrimination exist on campus and must be fought, but at the same time, they stood up for academic freedom. They were targeted with a vicious backlash.

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Last February, the group published Libertés malmenées : Chronique d’une année trouble à l’Université d’Ottawa, informing readers that Verushka Lieutenant-Duval had considered suicide and that her state is still precarious.

Concordia had its censorship moment when professor of film studies Catherine Russell said the N-word in class, quoting the title of a 1968 seminal essay on decolonization by Pierre Vallières, a member of the Front de libération du Québec. Vallières wrote it while incarcerated in a New York City jail where he was bonded with members of the Black Panthers. He saw Blacks and Quebecers as natural allies in the fight for justice.

Today, just saying the title of his book is considered racist.

Bill 32 is a response to cancel culture, trigger warnings (which it specifies can no longer be required) and demands that university classrooms be “safe spaces.” It arrives in the context of increasing self-censorship among teaching staff. Sixty per cent of the 1,079 professors surveyed in preparation for Bill 32 said they practice self-censorship in the classroom.

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Censorship has no place in universities, but the strong tides of intergenerational political correctness pits young against old, and old never wins. May it serve, however, as a warning to universities that fail to protect academic freedom.

This being Canada, some see Bill 32 as proof that Quebec is ambivalent toward racism.

Nothing beats the headline by the online news site DH News: “Quebec tables controversial Bill 32 allowing teachers to say any word in class — slurs included.” Misere.

This is not a bill about the N-word. It’s about academic freedom.

Universities must not shield students from so-called micro-aggressions caused by free speech in an academic context, for academic purposes.

Bill 32 is far from being mean-spirited, but informed, critical thought cannot thrive in the absence of freedom.

Legislating freedom will always be a tricky proposition, if not an ambiguous one.

But the times call for it.

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