Reframing the debate on academic freedom

Centering dignity, equality, and accountability

The ongoing debate concerning academic freedom and freedom of speech on campuses across Quebec has come to McGill Law. Thus far, this debate has been framed as “freedom of speech” versus “cancel culture.” However, this frame dangerously oversimplifies the issues and leads to further polarization. To this we respond that academic freedom is not weakened by removing the use of oppressive language on our campuses; in fact, we argue that it is strengthened by promoting a richer intellectual environment premised on notions of equality, dignity, and integrity. 

Oppressive and racist language on campuses has harmful consequences, and has led some students to end their university studies. The experience of having their very worth and dignity questioned and debated on campus resulted in their studies being “cancelled.” This compromises students’ wellbeing, as well as their opportunities in academia.

Demanding responsibility from our peers and institutions is not tantamount to “cancelling.” Rather, students who seek to challenge deep-seated systemic inequities on campuses are demanding accountability and redress for past and present harms. It bears reminding: academic freedom does not equate to unconditional social acceptance. 

We support all students who are holding their peers and professors accountable for their use of oppressive language. We believe that there are multiple ways to hold each other accountable, depending on the context, with respect and integrity, without resorting to intimidation and harassment. These students are striving to dismantle oppression and foster spaces that are safe and welcoming for all students, while still valuing the exchange of ideas and knowledge. Freedom of speech has been wielded to perpetuate oppressive rhetoric and to discriminate against students from marginalized groups. 

Respectful critique is a part of academic freedom, the university experience, and the exchange of ideas. In light of this, our relationships must be reciprocal and respectful in order for us to share spaces and ideas with one another. As students, when we voice our disagreement or disapproval at certain forms of expression, it is a reflection of our values and continued willingness to engage with these topics and our peers.

Moving forward, we call on students and professors to engage in dialogues with care, compassion, and thoughtful consideration of the consequences of their speech. Let’s not forget that at the root of all of this is the human impact of oppressive language. Despite the powerful resilience of marginalized communities in academia, who have fought and continue to fight for accountability, some students are leaving campuses because they are not safe there. As a baseline, we must centre the dignity of all students, and professors, when we engage in this debate. 

We must recognize that there has been an undeniable shift in the academic landscape in the past several decades. We have more diversity in Canadian universities than ever before, including a diverse range of perspectives and lived experiences. This change in academia includes a broader culture striving for inclusivity. Therefore, we must persist in voicing our firm opposition to racist comments, and continue to fight for a more accepting and inclusive space at McGill Law. We should seek to remedy – not perpetuate – historic harms within our community.

Words hold power. We believe that academic freedom and the exchange of knowledge comes with certain responsibilities. In order for students and professors to benefit from this freedom equally, we all have a responsibility to foster an academic environment grounded in the principle of human dignity, and to dismantle systemic inequities. 

If a classmate tells us that our words have caused harm, our response must not be to immediately brandish our right to freedom of expression. We can do better. Surely, we can share ideas and beliefs with care and compassion, recognizing everyone’s right to pursue an education with dignity.