Is Bill 32 the real threat to academic freedom? 130 Quebec professors express themselves in an open letter
On April 6, the Quebec government introduced a bill that was supposed to defend “academic freedom,” Bill 32, but it would do the exact opposite.
Passing Bill 32 in its current form will open the door for any current or future government to radically reshape the nature of the relationship between education and the provincial government.
We ask, is the purpose of this bill to protect academic freedom or does it usher in a whole new bureaucracy for state oversight of classroom activities?
One of the most fundamental pillars of academic freedom is independence from state control. The bill recognizes this in its preamble, but it contains a disturbing threat to this principle.
Its Article 6 grants the Minister of Higher Education the right “to direct an educational institution to include in its policy any element indicated by the Minister” and to make “corrections” to non-compliant policies.
This clause would give the minister the power to change individual university policies, violating the fundamental freedom from political interference in research and teaching.
Sections 4 through 6 of the bill would require universities to write policies for ministerial approval, and create boards and appoint trustees to “examine complaints about violations” of academic freedom.
Even more troubling, the bill requires universities to enact “penalties” for such violations. Because the very purpose of academic freedom is to protect professors from censorship for work that criticizes the government or challenges conventional knowledge, the introduction of a punitive approach to “protect speech” is in itself a violation of academic freedom.
If academic freedom is already an integral part of higher education, why is the government introducing this bill?
The government claims this bill is a response to the inquiry it conducted in 2021 into academic freedom. As researchers, we must ask ourselves: what is the scientific validity of the claims behind these findings?
A number of issues arise when we take a closer look at the survey, including the small sample size — about three percent of all teachers in the province.
The low response rate indicates the likelihood that only those with strong opinions on the subject chose to complete the survey. The researchers call this “confirmation bias,” which means using data that reinforces preconceived opinions rather than painting an accurate picture of what’s happening in the province.
GOVERNMENT ‘COOLS DOWN’ ON CONTENT WARNINGS
The bill contains only one express prohibition: against adopting mandatory content warnings when potentially offensive material or language will be used in the classroom.
We agree that imposing mandatory content disclaimers would violate the autonomy enshrined in academic freedom. But there is simply no evidence that Quebec universities are even considering such policies.
It is, and should remain, up to individual teachers – often in consultation with their students – to determine whether or when such warnings may be appropriate.
By pointing the finger at the practice of content warnings, this bill only broadcasts government opposition to them, with potentially chilling consequences.
We can see only one motivation behind the proposed bill: to grant the government more power to interfere in the running of universities and allow students and faculty to punish each other for engaging in real “discussions and debates” on politically controversial topics.
Academic freedom protects us from censorship, and this bill introduces new censorship mechanisms far more dangerous than anything currently in existence.
One can’t help but wonder: does the real threat to academic freedom come from Bill 32?
Robert Leckey is a professor of law at McGill University and Sarah Ghabrial is an assistant professor of history at Concordia University.
This open letter was signed by the following professors and 130 in total across Quebec. See the full list here.
Francis Dupuis-Déri, permanent professor, University of Quebec in Montreal/Tiohtià:ke
Martine Delvaux, full professor, UQAM
Jean-Sébastien Fallu, associate professor, University of Montreal
Catherine Flynn, professor, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi
Catherine Larochelle, assistant professor, University of Montreal
Geneviève Renard Painter, assistant professor, Concordia