Canadian News Dec 11, 2020 4:30 PM EST

Petition started in support of free speech at McGill after attack on academic freedom by student union

"Determining what is fair and just is impossible without developing an accurate understanding of the world—which, in turn, requires that thinkers be afforded the freedom to speak their minds."

Petition started in support of free speech at McGill after attack on academic freedom by student union
Noah David Alter Toronto
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Students at McGill University associated with the school's Free Speech Union have launched a petition in support of free speech at McGill University after the executive team Students’ Society of McGill University penned an open letter calling upon the school to restrict academic freedom and revoke the emeritus status of a professor.

"[Determining] what is fair and just is impossible without developing an accurate understanding of the world—which, in turn, requires that thinkers be afforded the freedom to speak their minds, follow their ideas wherever they lead, and express their conclusions to both fellow scholars and the broad public," the petition states.

Rhetorically asking "[who] decides" what speech would be curtailed and which speech would not, the petition asserts that the university authorities who would ultimately make such decisions, and that "it is surely naive of [the student union] to believe that the politics of the university authorities will always align with theirs—and you have a responsibility to point this out to them."

Quoting the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ira Glasser, the petition states "[speech] restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like they’re a great weapon when you’ve got your target in sight. But then the wind shifts."

The open letter from the student union claims that "McGill University was built on a history of oppression, its existence made possible by profiting off of the labour of enslaved and marginalized peoples," and that those who oppose them employ what they call "rhetorical violence."

In particular, the student union targeted a professor emeritus named Philip Carl Salzman, who has published articles opposing social justice, Black Lives Matter, and current Canadian immigration policies. By not punishing Dr. Salzman for his opinions, the student union suggests that he "illustrates the ways in which McGill maintains structures that protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues." The student union never provided any arguments for why Salzman's positions were wrong.

"If students are permitted to censure scholars or banish their ideas because the mere utterance of certain points of view causes some students to feel 'oppressed' or causes them psychic pain, then it will not be long before all arguments are settled by recourse to this kind of emotional appeal," the petition states. "The signatories should be encouraged to respond directly to Prof Salzman’s claims by deploying evidence, logic and persuasion—not by seeking his silencing."

The petition further calls upon McGill University "to defend Professor Salzman, without qualification, and to ensure that he will not be stripped of academic titles, nor of the privileges and distinctions that attach thereto."

Salzman himself responded to the open letter by describing his views as "classically liberal" and suggesting that he would welcome debate against his views in good faith. "I would welcome critiques of my articles through argument and evidence, and am prepared to defend my positions," Salzman wrote to The Post Millennial. "But no attempt has been made by these students to challenge my articles with contrary arguments and contradictory evidence. Their view appears to be that diversity of opinion about important subjects is unacceptable."

The petitioners cited a letter from University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer defending the academic freedom of one of their professors who had been embroiled in recent controversy. Zimmer wrote that "no individual member of the faculty speaks for the University as a whole on any subject, including on issues of diversity. In turn, the University will continue to defend vigorously any faculty member’s right to publish and discuss his or her ideas." Zimmer also cited his school's commitment to the Chicago principles, a pro-free speech policy that many free speech groups have encouraged their schools to adopt.

One of the petition's signatories is Toby Young, the associate editor of Quillette. "I'm signing because I believe that universities should uphold free speech," Young states briefly.

The administration of McGill University has not responded to the open letter nor the subsequent petition.

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