Freedom in media & university questioned
While they agree there is still a fair amount of freedom to speak out in Canadian academic circles and the news media, some U of S faculty and students attending a March 1 panel discussion say an increasingly oppressive climate in the media and on campus is beginning to stifle dissenting voices.
The panel, sponsored by the U of S Faculty Association, presented views from StarPhoenix University Editor Gerry Klein, U of S Students’ Union Vice-President of Student Issues Jennifer Barber, and Associate Professor of Commerce Isobel Findlay, to an audience of 20 at the Faculty Club.
Klein told the session on ‘Academic Freedom, the Media, & the General Public’ he has seen a change in the past 20 years in the freedom Canadian editorial writers have to write opinions disagreeing with the views of newspaper owners.
“There used to be no examples of things I couldn’t write (in editorials). Now there are a few.” He said it’s well-known that under the current CanWest Global ownership, editorial writers are not to write columns critical of Israel’s position in the mid-East conflict.
Klein said reporters remain free to write news reports covering those who express contrary views. And, he says, unlike in many parts of the world, he is still free to write editorial views severely criticizing the Prime Minister. And he also recently wrote a news story about a Jewish theologian who is critical of Israel's policies.
He said people who complain about lack of freedom to express their views sometimes confuse that with the fact that their views, when expressed, are simply not agreed with by their audience.
Isobel Findlay said she’s concerned about who has the power in any society or organization to decide which groups and which views are to be considered legitimate and which are to be marginalized.
She cited the recent case of UBC Women’s Studies Prof. Sunera Thobani, who was widely criticized for speaking out against the U.S. shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “Thobani has been labelled as ‘this uppity woman of color’,” because she doesn’t fit within the current model of legitimate discourse.
“There is a great need for journalists and academics to work together for a broader and sharper public understanding” of this question, she said.
USSU Vice-President Barber cited the similar case of U of S alumnus Safwan Javed, the drummer with the band Wide Mouth Mason, who was blasted in the media for expressing a critical view of the U.S. after Sept. 11. And she said her own ability to speak out on student issues was threatened when shortly after being elected she was told by fellow USSU executive members she must be “apolitical” and was put through “a week of training in how to never have an opinion.”
Education Prof. Michael Collins said not only is the climate at the U of S getting oppressive, but “we feel the local paper is an apologist” for the University administration. Klein took issue with that view.
English Prof. Len Findlay said the University’s administration is threatened by the USFA-sponsored series of panel discussions on ‘Understanding Excellence’. He said the use of “excellence” as a buzzword on campus has made Council meetings “sometimes like walking into a Monty Python skit – ‘How excellent have you been today?’”
He said there’s a chilling on campus, “a discouragement of candor and courage” – and it should be contested.
University of Lethbridge Native Studies Assoc. Prof. Tony Hall told how, when he was organizing an academic conference on how to include Aboriginal people in the Free Trade of the Americas debate, prior to last year’s Quebec City summit, he was interrogated by a national security officer – an example of an attempt to use an academic as an agent of the government, and to stifle dissent.
USFA President, Law Prof. Tim Quigley, said the Association’s series of panels is “creating some space to speak out” for those concerned that there may be a “chilling effect” on campus.