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The U of O campus. Photo: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum
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Here’s a look at the highlights and major recommendations from the report

The University of Ottawa has publicly released the Committee on Academic Freedom’s report. The committee, which was created on March 30 to explore issues and challenges surrounding academic freedom and freedom of expression at the University of Ottawa, was headed by retired justice Michel Bastarache and composed of five U of O faculty staff. 

The report sought to answer six fundamental questions when it comes to the challenges faced by the University of Ottawa when defining academic freedom and freedom of expression for its members. It also produced seven recommendations in the hopes of improving the university community’s understanding of academic freedom and freedom of expression.

A common theme in the report is that the University needs to protect academic freedom as well as freedom of expression. The report calls on the U of O to “unequivocally reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression, and that it clarify its rights and obligations as an educational institution.”

Committee against the censorship of words in a respectful academic context

One of the questions that the committee sought to answer was: “How should the University balance academic freedom with its values of equity, diversity and inclusion?” 

This is a question that has been raised countless times in the last year when debating the incidents surrounding professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval’s use of the ‘N-word’ in a virtual lecture in September 2020. 

The committee was clear in its report that it is not in favour of institutional or self-censorship that is apt to compromise the dissemination of knowledge or is motivated by fear of public repudiation. 

“The Committee is therefore against the exclusion of words, works or ideas in the context of respectful academic presentations and discussions whose educational goal is to promote the dissemination of knowledge.”

The committee says it believes students and the University community must be willing to address sensitive topics in an academic context. 

It recommends providing notices in advance when sensitive topics will be discussed that could offend some students so they are not caught off guard. An example of this would be content warnings at the beginning of a sensitive article in a reading. 

The committee also recommends the implementation of a diversity and inclusion training program along with a personal consultation service for faculty members. 

According to the committee, the consultations they held, showed faculty members often “feel ill-equipped to address” these issues and that they “urgently need information and resources to do so.”

Cyberbullying needs to be addressed

A clear offshoot of the Lieutenant-Duval incident was the rise in cyberbullying — many students and faculty members who shared their opinion on the incident were targeted online by individuals with malicious intentions.

The report suggests the University of Ottawa establishes a clear policy to deal with cyberbullying.

​​”The Committee recommends that the administration establish an action plan not only to fight racism and discrimination, but also cyberbullying — a constantly increasing threat to both freedoms that is more and more difficult to keep in check.”

The committee, without outright naming specific incidents, justified the need for this policy by stating it comes from many incidents that have led to faculty and some students feeling unsafe due to cyberbullying. 

“The many incidents that left faculty and some students feeling insecure showed that there is a need to establish norms of conduct applicable to students, faculty and other University staff, and measures prohibiting cyberbullying.”

“Dialogue and the search for truth will be impossible if differences of opinion give rise to invective and insults, disrespect for diversity or disregard for human dignity. The University must regulate such conduct and possibly review the scope of the principles underlying Policy 121—Statement on Free Expression,” reads the report. 

Committee wants the U of O to reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom

A common theme of the report was the U of O’s need to unequivocally reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression.

One of the more damning statements in the report was that the institution needs to clarify its rights and obligations as an educational institution.

“The members of the University community must be certain of the University’s support when their right to free expression is at stake, and they must be able to rely on an effective mechanism for addressing issues of concern in that regard.”

But the report does mention this cannot be done at the expense of silencing marginalized people and groups and that each situation that arises should be evaluated using three criteria — legality, legitimacy, and necessity.

“We believe that three criteria should be used to decide contentious issues: legality, legitimacy, and necessity (based on proportionality),” reads the report. “However, the University will not normally wish to limit its actions to suppressing speech that is illegal since it considers that expressing certain facts and ideas can offend, shock, anger or jeopardize free expression for fear of further marginalization or stigma.”

“The University strives to encourage respectful, tolerant and empathetic discourse, and will thus seek a balance, in the same way a professor would not want to disregard the impact of certain teachings.”

“Freedom of expression and academic freedom should be vigorously protected, but not at the expense of silencing marginalized people and groups. There is no straightforward solution to this dilemma. Each case needs to be analyzed within its context.”

Committee recommends establishment of standing committee on academic freedom

One of the major recommendations made by the committee is for the University of Ottawa to establish a standing committee to review and implement the policy on academic freedom and freedom of expression. This committee’s mission would be to strengthen the protections for academic freedom and to handle complaints received about academic freedom at the University. 

“In essence, the committee would support the mandate of the Provost and Vice-President, Academic Affairs, to protect academic freedom, thereby increasing the tools at the Vice-

President’s disposal for carrying out the position’s duties in that regard and strengthening accountability to the University community,” reads the report.

The report says that this new committee would have to do more than simply hear from complainants, conduct investigations and impose penalties. The committee would have to define “the nature of the complaint or worrisome incident and subsequently examine the situation by applying known criteria.”

The report suggests the committee could study implementing “policies and principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression in all areas of activity (teaching, research, academic conferences, etc.) on campus.” This committee would compile an annual report on complaints that have been received and processed and analyzed, then share this report with the vice president, academic affairs. 

Although the structure and composition of this committee will be left to the discretion of the U of O administration, Bastarache’s committee recommends about five members who are experts in the field with two-year mandates.

What went into creating the report?

The committee’s report was late — it was supposed to be released over the summer. Multiple delays made it so it was released this afternoon on Nov. 4. These delays were blamed on translation issues and other technical problems by U of O president Jacques Frémont at Senate and Board of Governors meetings over the last few months.

To create the report the Committee held two rounds of consultations where they invited members of the U of O community to submit briefs or comments sharing their opinions or positions on the issues raised by the committee. In total, the committee received 102 briefs and comments from the community.

Retired justice Bastarache also reached out to faculty professional associations, student associations, support staff and the Action Committee on Antiracism and Inclusion to hear directly from them. Only two groups declined the invitation, the Support Staff of the University of Ottawa (SSUO) and the BIPOC caucus — both did submit a brief. 

The Committee also did an environmental scan to research how questions on academic freedom and freedom of expression are handled at other Canadian universities and around the world. 

“The Committee obtained and analyzed documents from Canadian universities on the concepts of academic freedom and freedom of expression, in order to see how they are interpreted and applied.”

These consultations and research were made to give the committee the clearest picture possible before they made their recommendations to the U of O administration. 

“Not surprisingly, the Committee came across significant differences of opinion. There is no consensus at the University of Ottawa or at Canadian universities as a whole, even though most stakeholders believe in the importance of the freedoms in question,” concluded the report. “The Committee did not try to sway anyone during its consultations, whose purpose was to let participants have their say. The Committee acted strictly in a listening capacity.”

As for its recommendation on if academic freedom or freedom of expression should be further regulated with penalties and consequences, the committee said it didn’t believe so but punted the question to its new recommended standing committee. 

“With regard to limits on rights, the Committee could find very few helpful precedents, particularly when it came to potential penalties for offenders.”

“The Committee proposed the establishment of another committee that would review complaints or situations requiring action by the administration, together with an analytical grid and criteria that would enable consistent, balanced decisions.”

“The Committee did not recommend any penalties, as it felt that the system currently in place should be used.”