Does the real threat come from Bill 32?

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Martine Delvaux, Francis Dupuis-Déri, ​​Jean-Sébastien Fallu, Catherine Flynn, Sarah Ghabrial, Catherine Larochelle. Sources: Babelio, professors.uqam.ca, research.umontreal.ca, uqac.ca, explore.concordia.ca/

On April 6, the Quebec government introduced a bill that, purporting to protect freedom of education, will in fact achieve the exact opposite. With the passage of Bill 32 in its current form, the CAQ government (and future governments) will be able to radically change the relationship between the education sector and the provincial government.

If passed, the bill will strip 32 universities and educators of their autonomy not only over the subject taught but also over the way it is taught, giving the Ministry of Higher Education the unprecedented power to intervene in the manage our classes. We wonder: is this law intended to protect academic freedom, or does it signal the emergence of a new bureaucracy that allows the state to monitor what happens in the classroom?

One of the most fundamental and widely accepted foundations of the notion of academic freedom is independence from state control. The bill recognizes this fact, but nevertheless contains a serious threat to it in Article 6, which gives the Minister responsible for higher education the right to “instruct an educational institution to provide in its policy any element that it indicates” as well as the power to “take the necessary corrective action” to an institution that is deemed to be non-compliant.

Thus, this clause would confer enormous and unprecedented power on the minister, leaving him free to change targeted university policies, violating a fundamental value of academic freedom: freedom from political interference in research and education.

Clauses 4 and 5 of the bill would require universities to formulate policies to be sent to the government – ​​presumably to get the minister’s approval – as well as establish boards of directors and appoint trustees to “handle complaints with regarding an infringement of the right to academic academic freedom”. Even more disturbing is that the law requires universities to impose sanctions for these violations. Since the raison d’être of academic freedom is to protect professors from censorship aimed at intellectual activities that criticize the government or question conventional knowledge, the introduction of a punitive approach to the “protection of academic freedom university” is itself a violation of this freedom.

If academic freedom is already a building block of higher education, why is the government proposing this project?

The government says the law is a response to the research into academic freedom in 2021. As researchers, we ask ourselves: what is the scientific value of the claims arising from these results? Of the 33,000 members of the post-secondary sector who received the survey, only 1,079 responded – about 3% of the total number of professors in the province⁠1. The sample size alone raises the question of the statistical weight of the survey. In addition, the low response rate may be explained by the lack of ethics and ambiguity arising from the questions formulated in the survey, and indicates the possibility that only people with strong opinions on the issue chose to “opt up.” answer’. By relying on these results to propose Bill 32, the government suffers from the so-called confirmation bias in research, which results in using data that confirms biases rather than trying to obtain results that provide an accurate picture of what is going on. happens in the province.

Since the government survey did not respond to actual cases of academic censorship in Quebec, but rather to public debate about events at the University of Ottawa, we find no tangible evidence that academic freedom is really under threat in the province.

The bill contains one formal ban; it is prohibited to enforce warnings when potentially offensive content or language is used in the classroom or in university activities. We recognize that a requirement to use content warnings would violate the autonomy that protects academic freedom. That said, there is simply no evidence that Quebec universities are considering imposing such a practice. The decision of whether, how and when students should emotionally prepare for potentially dehumanizing or violent content is already protected by academic freedom. Each teacher is and should be free to determine if and when such disclaimers are appropriate – often in consultation with students.

By specifically targeting the practice of content warnings, this bill seems to show that the government disapproves of this practice, pointing to worrisome potential consequences.

So we see one possible motivation behind this bill: to give the government more power to intervene in the functioning of universities, and to empower students and teachers to punish each other under the pretense of opening up discussion and debate on politically controversial issues. Academic freedom protects us from censorship, and this bill introduces new mechanisms that are far more dangerous than the current ones. We can only ask: Does the real threat to academic freedom actually come from Bill 32?

About the Authors
Martine DelvauxProfessor, UQAM;
Francis Dupuis-Derictenured professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal/Tiohtià: ke (UQAM);
Jean-Sebastien Falluassociate professor at the University of Montreal;
Catherine Flynnassociate professor at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi;
Sarah Gabrielassistant professor at Concordia University;
Catherine Larochelleassistant professor, University of Montreal;
Robert LekeyProfessor, Faculty of Law, McGill University;
Genevieve Renard Painterassistant professor at Concordia University;
Judith Sribnaicassistant professor at the University of Montreal

View the full list of signatories. This text first appeared in La Presse.

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