Free Speech and the Issue of Academic Freedom: Is the Canadian Velvet Totalitarian Disease Coming to Australian Campuses?

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This paper begins with an elaboration of the terms in the title, for which I claim accuracy, though no comfort. Academic freedom is defined for all members of the academic community (students and faculty) as the right to be evaluated only in terms of performance (merit), and not at all in terms of opinions (comfort). The current contrasting culture of comfort on Canadian campuses is a velvet totalitarian one, where, except for the severity of punishments, the following five salient features of real totalitarian regimes are present: the presence of uninterpretable laws: the presence and power of unqualified pseudo experts; status-defined ethics; freezing fear of engaging in public discussion of controversial but fundamental issues; demonization of dissidents. The final part of the paper raises the question, through a discussion of the 2006 case of Andrew Fraser's treatment by Macquarie University, of whether the Canadian velvet totalitarian administrative disease is starting to infect Australian university administrators as well as those Australian academics who think they deal with the disease by ignoring it.

The personal background of this paper is that, as a student in the late 50s and early sixties at the University of Sydney in psychology and philosophy, I experienced total academic freedom. This contrasted sharply with the totalitarian, Stalinist Hungary from which my parents rescued me as a 9 year old in 1949. When, after completing my Ph. D., I went first to Indiana University for a couple of years, and then to the University of Toronto for another 38 years, I found that there were subtle but significant reductions to academic freedom in North American academia. These reductions, however, were grossly magnified since the late eighties with the increasing influence of political correctness on North American campuses, where quite blatant attacks on the academic freedom of both faculty and students began to occur especially on Canadian campuses.

As a way of resisting these PC pressures, the Canadian Society of Academic Freedom and Scholarship or SAFS, of which more later, was formed, and I was a founding member and later president from 1993-8. Perhaps partly because of my childhood experience in Stalinist Hungary, I was extra sensitive to various forms of totalitarianism as well as totalitarian elements in democratic societies. So I coined the term 'velvet totalitarianism' to describe the Canadian campus scene. Having come home to Australia in late 2005, I can see elements of the same developments that took place on Canadian campuses now in Australian universities.

Accordingly, the bulk of this paper will deal with why I think this velvet totalitarian regime was established in Canadian universities. Then, in a final brief section I shall raise the question of the extent to which this sort of regime also seems to be developing in Australian universities. But before I recount my Canadian campus story, let me first clarify what I mean by the two fundamental terms that underlie the rationale of this paper: free speech and academic freedom.

Concerning free speech, I think the formulation that is most relevant is Nathan Sharansky's distinction between what he calls free societies on the one hand, and fear or totalitarian societies on the other hand. In a fear society, which is exemplified by the Soviet state from which Sharansky escaped, the state uses criminal punishment against opinions that are contrary to the state's ideology, In an ideal free society, which is exemplified more by a country like Australia than the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries it commanded behind its Iron Curtain, the state does not punish opinions on these grounds, although opinions may be evaluated negatively, and even ridiculed by individuals and by non-state organizations.

My concept of academic freedom assumes that universities should maintain freedom of speech or opinion at least as much as the society in which they function. …