Andrew Lawton

The dangers of compelled speech

Earlier this summer, the Rights and Freedoms Institute hosted a great forum on compelled speech, sparked by the first anniversary of the passage of Bill C-16, better known as the bill extending legal protections to varying gender identities, and, critics point out, their pronouns.

I wrote about the forum and the broader themes of compelled speech in my column this month for The Interim. You can read the full column here, though an excerpt is below.

This summer marks one year since the implementation of Bill C-16, the legislation that catapulted Professor Jordan Peterson to fame and galvanized a much-needed discussion about freedom of expression in Canada.

Though we have yet to see the first public prosecution under the bill, its free speech implications are still very much alive.

The bill updated the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act to add “gender identity or expression” as protected areas when it comes to hate crimes and purported human rights violations falling under federal jurisdiction.

These protections already existed in Ontario’s Human Rights code, which served as the basis for the federal legislation. The Ontario Human Rights Commission is clear that “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” is discrimination.

It was rather suspect that federal lawmakers were so vague about what they hoped to accomplish with C-16 when introducing and passing it. The Human Rights Code already protected against discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and religion, among other identifiers. But these areas are far less subjective and, dare I say, fluid, than gender is.

Take a look at your Facebook account if you want an illustration of how absurd this can get. Facebook offers 71 options for gender, ranging from agender to transfeminine and beyond. Even the most well-meaning progressive will fall short trying to keep track of them all, let alone remembering which pronouns are which.

It isn’t just about him and her. Made-up words like zim and xir, which were once confined to university campuses, now have the protection of the law.

Acadia faculty union signed agreement with university to gag Rick Mehta

A new development in the case of Rick Mehta’s firing casts doubt on whether he can expect much support from his union in the forthcoming arbitration.

Mehta, a former tenured psychology professor at Acadia University, was fired at the end of August after a months-long investigation that invited crowdsourced complaints about Mehta’s conduct inside and outside of the classroom.

Even after the school commissioned two reports, there has been no formal finding of harassment or discrimination against Mehta. This is why Mehta wants the reports made public, which the school will not allow.

Because Mehta was a unionized faculty member, it’s the union’s responsibility to defend him. Though based on a “process agreement” between Mehta, the school, and the Acadia University Faculty Association, it’s clear this isn’t happening.

The document, published for the first time here, is supposed to be an agreement to the process by which Mehta will be disciplined. It was signed on August 1, 30 days before he was terminated.

The agreement says “the specific information contained or referred to in the MacKay Report and the Hooper Report could potentially form the basis of discipline of the Grievor (Mehta).”

It also says the “Parties to this Agreement have agreed to expedite all issues relating to the Grievor in accordance with this Agreement on a without prejudice and precedent basis.”

Except Mehta refused to sign it. And despite him urging his union to do the same, his supposed representative signed it anyway.

Mehta’s union entered into the agreement that ultimately led to his dismissal without his authorization or consent.

“The union’s lawyer spent two hours trying to convince me to sign it—and then the union’s president signed it anyway after I had refused,” Mehta told me in an interview.

Had he signed it, it would have been bound to a clause saying he’s “not permitted to distribute the confidential information related to the complaint…. This includes, but is not limited to, posting information on social media or providing any information to the media generally or any third parties.”

It also would have barred Mehta from even commenting on the case in media reports.

In effect, Mehta’s union has endorsed the same gag order and lack of transparency that the university itself has attempted to impose on him.

Why this is so concerning is that it essentially leaves Mehta without representation, and thus without viable recourse. He complained to Nova Scotia’s labour board under Duty to Fair Representation provisions, but was told this week that unions have the authority to make decisions in spite of the disagreement of the member impacted by the decision.

In the eyes of Nova Scotia’s labour laws, the union is representing Mehta fairly because it is taking the case to arbitration.

In the September 11 phone call from the labour board, he was told his complaint was unlikely to go anywhere because his union is representing him—even if that representation is only on paper.

Full “process” agreement between Acadia University, Rick Mehta, and the Acadia faculty association. If it does not appear below, you can read it here.

“Process Agreement&quo… by on Scribd

Pro-free speech professor Rick Mehta fired by Acadia University

Update: I’ve launched a petition to Acadia University demanding it release the reports it’s using to justify Rick Mehta’s firing. Please sign and share it here.

Acadia University psychology professor Rick Mehta has been fired six months after the school launched an investigation over allegedly “racist and transphobic” comments. The school said it was legally obligated to investigate in order to provide an environment free from harassment and discrimination.

A brief statement from Acadia University confirmed Mehta’s dismissal this week.

“We can confirm that Dr. Rick Mehta, a professor in Acadia University’s Department of Psychology, has been dismissed by the University. As this is a personnel matter, the University will provide no additional comments or respond to requests for further details,” an unnamed school spokesperson said in a Facebook message.

According to Mehta, the firing came from Acadia president Peter Ricketts, citing issues that “were wide ranging and include failure to fulfill academic responsibilities, unprofessional conduct, breach of privacy, and harassment and intimidation of students and other members of the University community.”

Mehta says his letter from Ricketts speaks only in generalities and does not lay out specific examples of misconduct. The termination was based on two reports commissioned by the school—one by law professor Wayne MacKay, and the other by Dean of Science Jeff Hooper.

Mehta says he’s unable to have copies of these unless he agrees “to be broadly gagged,” a claim Acadia would not comment on.

Mehta insists people would see his termination to be unjustified were they to read the reports, which he wants made public.

In the meantime, Mehta’s union has filed for arbitration to fight the firing.

It’s difficult to speak to the university’s investigation process when so much of it was done in backrooms. However, Mehta was subjected to an orchestrated social media campaign encouraging students to speak out against him, regardless of their experiences.

As of this point, his termination appears to be more about his political views than his teaching.

I’ve met Mehta on a couple of occasions through the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, in which we are both members. As a vocal proponent of academic freedom and free speech, Mehta has challenged conventional left-wing orthodoxy, a rarity from an academic in the social sciences field.

There’s been no formal finding of any harassment or discrimination by Mehta. And the only questioning of his credentials and teaching has come from those who merely disagreed with his positions on several issues.

“The students have not expressed in writing the precise details of the racist and transphobic comments, but it is clear from their interactions with me that they are extremely disturbed by your comments, some to the point of not going to class,” said Mehta’s department head, Rob Raeside, in a letter that Mehta himself shared publicly back in February.

Mehta’s firing is the culmination of an ideological witch hunt rather than any genuine wrongdoing. Especially taking into account how the initial investigation materialized mere weeks after Mehta started challenging Acadia’s “decolonization initiatives.” It came days after he critiqued the role of feminism in one of his first year courses.

As I wrote about earlier, academic freedom now has protection under the law in Ontario. In Nova Scotia, Mehta and his colleagues are not so fortunate.

Ontario’s free speech policy is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough

Universities must protect free speech or risk losing their government funding.

That’s the crux of a policy unveiled last week by the new Progressive Conservative government in Ontario, Canada. It’s a much-needed step in the fight against the campus censorship that’s become so rampant across North America.

Every taxpayer-funded post-secondary institution has until the new year to “develop and publicly post its own free speech policy” based on the University of Chicago principles, the government said.

Since being minted in 2014, dozens of American schools have adopted the Chicago principles, which affirm that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.”

None in Canada has, though not for lack of need.

Last year, the University of British Columbia set out to develop its own statement affirming free speech, but after eight months published one that was anything but.

“We must hold in balance concurrent legal and moral responsibilities regarding freedom of expression while providing a respectful, constructive and inclusive environment for all,” the final version said.

This is vexing because of how often campus censorship thrives under the guise of fostering “inclusivity.” When it comes to open debate, these spaces are often as exclusive as can be, depending on what you believe.

It was only last fall when Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., was reprimanded in a closed-door witch trial for daring to show a clip from a public affairs television show of Jordan Peterson debating gender identity.

Laurier eventually exonerated Shepherd when its president conceded “numerous errors in judgement” took place in the meeting—including the existence of the meeting.

The only consequences for the school’s attempt to shame and bully a student into submission on ideological grounds came about from the public relations crisis the incident created. That only happened because Shepherd covertly recorded the session.

Laurier would be a lot more reticent to trample on academic freedom if its grant money was in jeopardy.

Ontario’s approach demands that schools ensure free speech not only for faculty and students, but also guests on campus.

Critics have called this approach heavy-handed, arguing free speech isn’t all that free when the state is forcing it. If this was at a private college, I’d agree.

However, these schools are owned and funded by the government, so they should be expected to uphold the same freedoms government is obliged to safeguard.

Unfortunately, Ontario courts have disagreed in recent years. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has twice ruled that student unions are private non-profits and should be allowed to set out whatever regulations they want.

The judges neglected to consider the monopolistic power student unions are given by administrators to govern student life. If you want to book a speaker or convene a club, you have to go through a student union.

Last year, the University of Ottawa refused to ratify a pro-life club on campus, claiming its mandate was not compliant with the student union’s pro-choice stance.

It was the same university whose provost sent a letter to Ann Coulter in 2010 to “inform” her that “promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges,” in advance of an upcoming talk, which ended up being cancelled minutes before it was set to begin after protestors mounted to such a point police could not guarantee anyone’s safety.

A fire alarm was pulled, registration tables were flipped, and entrances were blocked.

In 2010, this was outrageous. In 2018, it’s expected. For that reason alone, it’s easy to say universities—and many of their students—have failed when it comes to free speech.

Clubs that don’t meet certain ideological standards are denied ratification. If they become sanctioned clubs, they’re denied space for events. If they get the space, they have to contend with thousands of dollars in “security fees.” If they manage to do all that, one tug of a fire alarm gets the event cancelled anyway.

This is the all-too-common progression on campuses lacking a commitment to free speech.

The new Ontario policy forces administrators to protect free speech, but doesn’t go far enough when dealing with student unions, only requiring schools “consider” yanking financial support from student groups that don’t play ball.

The Canadian Federation of Students said in a statement that the Ontario government is “forcing (universities) to pick a side in what is a deeply important public debate.”

The “debate” CFS chairperson Nour Alideeb is referring to is that of free speech, which shouldn’t be much of a debate at all on a campus.

Her statement underscores why the policy is so important in the first place. It’s lamentable government must step in to protect free speech, but doing so is the right move.

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