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Trust in Freedom of Expression

A four-part series exploring our level of trust in the boundaries of our freedom to speak, to express belief,
to educate ourselves and to represent ourselves creatively.

The civil freedoms of speech, thought and property have been the cornerstone of liberal, democratic regimes since first conceived in the 17th century. We continue to hold them dearly, rely on and espouse them even today. Among the most cherished is the freedom of expression, which comprises the individual's freedom of speech, the scholar's academic freedom, the right to expression of belief and the freedom of artistic representation. These freedoms are justified on the grounds of tolerance, personal liberty and individual conscience, and in the name of a vibrant civil society. However, what is notable now is how dramatically the social and political context has changed. Today, artistic expression is curtailed not by the dictates of the church, but by the very "free enterprise" that has stepped in to take its place. Today individual and academic freedoms are restricted not by tyrannical or intolerant monarchs, but ironically by the very demand for tolerance that characterizes late modern, liberal democracy. It is precisely in the name of property, political inclusion and individual rights, rather than in the name of religious or moral dogma, that individual and institutional freedoms are encroached.

We have witnessed a series of extraordinary events in Nova Scotia and across Canada which raise profound questions about why our freedom of expression is threatened or curtailed. In the last year alone, there has been considerable controversy concerning the public posting of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed at Saint Mary's University, the attendance of a Saint Francis Xavier University professor at a Holocaust conference in Iran, neo-conservative speaker Jared Taylor's silencing by a black-hooded crowd in Halifax, and the attempt to impose a code de vie on citizens of Herouxville, Quebec.

Highly controversial incidents have occurred in other Western democratic countries as well. In May of this year, British academics representing the Union of Colleges and Universities voted to consider boycotting their Israeli colleagues in light of Israel's relationship with Palestine. In 2004, France banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. At the same time, artists, film-makers and writers are bound or even silenced by corporate and institutional gates. Canada's two major theatre chains are American owned. As a result, by 2003 only 0.2% of screen time in our theatres was dedicated to Canadian movies. Public funding for the arts has also been slashed drastically.

These examples raise a series of critical questions:

  • Is there a quality of tyranny attached to the demand for tolerance?
  • Are scholars obliged to support political views held institutionally? Should they be?
  • What beliefs and practices are we really free to espouse, and when?
  • How free are artists to express themselves creatively when artistic production is hamstrung by limited public funds or by the dictates of corporate profit, political agendas and rating boards?
  • Can we still trust in our freedoms today? In what, exactly, do we trust?

Part 1 - Trust in Freedom of Speech:
What is Freedom of Speech Good For?

Thursday, October 11, 7:30-9:30 pm
McNally Theatre Auditorium, Saint Mary's University

In Canada, the civil right to freedom of speech is considered fundamental. It is the very ground upon which the political right to vote and hold office, and the social right to cultural recognition and economic security, are built. These fundamental freedoms were first demanded in the 17th century, in response to the absolute stranglehold on thought, expression and conscience exercised by European monarchs and religious authorities. They were won only at the cost of bloody revolutions.

But what is the rationale for freedom of speech today? The very individual liberty for whose sake bloody revolutions were fought now seems to justify intolerance of the most offensive kind. The very respect for difference and cultural diversity for whose sake these battles were waged now seems to warrant coercion. Increasingly, criticism of another culture or country's practice is almost immediately characterized as abuse or hate, regardless of the merits of the position. For example, when Canadian scholar Himani Bannerji criticized Israeli foreign policy, she was immediately accused of anti-Semitism. Is this a sign that we have lost trust in our most basic freedoms? Have our freedoms shrunk to the point that individuals are afraid to voice their views? Are we as a society afraid to hear them? Do we still dare to be free?

Part one of our series examines the boundaries and scope of freedom of speech in Canada, and illuminates the social repercussions of its limitations.

Keynote: A. Alan Borovoy - General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Panelist: Ross Haynes, Q.C. - Lawyer, political and social commentator
Panelist: Bruce Wark - Inglis Professor of Journalism, University of King's College
Moderator: Lisa Taylor - Lawyer, Journalist and Professional Communicator

Thursday, October 11, 7:30 - 9:30 pm
McNally Theatre Auditorium, Saint Mary's University

Part 2 - Trust in Academic Freedom:
Does Academic Freedom Serve Democracy?

Tuesday, October 23, 7:30-9:30 pm
McNally Theatre Auditorium, Saint Mary's University

According to the 2005 policy statement on academic freedom drafted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), academic staff have the right to teach, discuss, research and disseminate knowledge without hindrance or impediment. This right enables scholars to serve the common good of society. According to this policy, 'robust democracies require no less'. For this reason, Canadian professors are not required to be neutral, nor are they to be inhibited in any way from expressing their views.

Yet despite the policy, an atmosphere of repression seems to have descended upon the Canadian academy. Ironically, it is now in the name of progressiveness that freedom in the academy is curtailed. A faculty member from Saint Francis Xavier University who attended a conference in Iran that gave public space to Holocaust deniers was chastised by his university president for attending the event. At the University of Manitoba, a professor and his doctoral student were prohibited from screening their video on the consequences of genetically modifying crops. The university blocked the release of the research on the grounds it could lead to litigation from a corporate promoter of GM crops with university ties. These recent incidents suggest faculty may be subjected to implicit and explicit, institutional norms or agendas.

In part two of this series, we explore the role professionals in the academy can and should play with respect to the common, democratic good of vigorous moral and political debate.

The Questions:

  • Is potentially important research being quietly censored by review boards or university administrators?
  • What is the social or political benefit of academic freedom in a democratic society?
  • Is there a point at which academics must toe the institutional line?
  • Does scholarly research ever qualify as irresponsible or even hateful?
  • Where should the limits of academic freedom be drawn?

Keynote: James Turk - Executive Director, Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Panelist: Dan Leger - Director of News Content, Halifax Chronicle Herald
Panelist: Wayne MacKay - Professor of Law, Dalhousie University
Moderator: Lisa Taylor - Lawyer, Journalist and Professional Communicator

Tuesday, October 23, 7:30 - 9:30 pm
McNally Theatre Auditorium, Saint Mary's University

Part 3 - Trust in Freedom of Artistic Expression:
Is Art Free?

Thursday, November 15, 7:30-9:30 pm
Scotiabank Theatre, Saint Mary's University

Artists, often the most marginal and outcast, are society's perennial critics. For the last century, this has been their thankless, but generally accepted and venerated, role. We may not always like what artists have to say or how they represent us, but we are nonetheless frequently grateful to be provoked by works of creative expression.

Happily, Canadians are in some respects freer than their American colleagues to express themselves creatively. Here the arts are publicly-funded in part, and rating boards are arguably less driven by religious or cultural mores. Steady budget cuts, however, have wreaked havoc on creative output in Canada. At the same time, ratings for films and television are determined by "community standards," yet communities are rarely consulted. Indeed, it is never quite clear just which community's standards are at stake. Moreover, the relative permissiveness and autonomy enjoyed by Canadian artists comes at a cost. For the very funding agencies that enable visual or other artists to create work that is not directly answerable to the court of public opinion also serve as gate-keepers, before whom artists must vie for increasingly limited funds. These boards ultimately determine what artists are free to express, when, and in which contexts. Has culture consequently become, as one writer puts it, nothing but "a mere display to brighten up the boardroom wall"?

In the third part of our series, we investigate the nature of our trust in the freedom of creative expression, and explore its political implications.

The Questions:

  • Are artists free to represent the world in whatever ways they see it, and are they answerable for their views? To whom?
  • Should publicly-funded art reflect an official understanding of local or national culture?
  • Does art have a social or political function? Should it?
  • What are the social costs of artistic freedom? What are the costs of its lack?

Keynote: Robert Sirman - Director of the Canada Council for the Arts
Panelist: Kyle Shaw - Editor, The Coast
Panelist: Jackie Torrens - Nova Scotia Writer/Artist
Moderator: Lisa Taylor - Lawyer, Journalist and Professional Communicator

Thursday, November 15, 7:30-9:30 pm
Scotiabank Theatre, Saint Mary's University

Part 4 - Trust in Freedom to Express Belief:
Where Does Belief Belong?

Tuesday, December 4, 7:30-9:30 pm
Scotiabank Theatre, Saint Mary's University

In Canada, freedom of religious expression is counted among our most fundamental legal entitlements, just as it is recognized internationally as a basic human right. Yet in practice the democratic commitment to freedom of belief has been increasingly attacked from every quarter. From the political left, for example, some seem to endorse a level of tolerance that prohibits any public expression of faith at all, such that even the word "Christmas" has been systematically replaced. At the same time, many in the political centre claim that certain limits to freedom of expression are required to secure liberal democracy in the face of global terrorism. Consequently, a climate of increased suspicion seems to surround all those who express or practice their faith publicly, to such an extent that wearing the hijab is frequently prohibited. Meanwhile, those on the political right call for a return to prayer in school and, in the United States, the teaching of creationism along with Darwinism. Here the argument is that multicultural inclusion has led to moral relativism and social disintegration, and that traditional Christian values ought therefore to be brought back.

In this charged social and political context, it is no longer clear whether we are still free to express our beliefs or - even if we are - when and in what contexts we may do so. What are we still free to express? Can religious freedom be protected in the public square? Does it even belong there, anymore?

Our final discussion in this series examines the nature of our trust in the freedom to express our faiths, particularly in the wake of the controversies and conflicts that have erupted over the fundamental Canadian right to the freedoms of conscience, religion, and belief.

The Questions:

  • Should freedom of religious expression require freedom from religion?
  • Does the belief in tolerance mean that all beliefs are tolerable?
  • How free are we to express our deepest convictions, and what constrains us?
  • Is there a place for faith in the public sphere, such as in schools, government, or the legal system? What are the repercussions of its absence?


Keynote: Dr. Kathleen Skerrett - Professor of Religious Studies, Grinnell College, Iowa
Panelist: Dr. Mark Mercer - Associate Professor of Philosophy, Saint Mary's University
Panelist: Dr. Jamal Badawi - Professor Emeritus, St. Mary's University
Moderator: Lisa Taylor - Lawyer, Journalist and Professional Communicator

Tuesday, December 4, 7:30 - 9:30 pm
Scotiabank Theatre, Saint Mary's University

CCEPA is a joint initiative of The Atlantic School of Theology and Saint Mary's University .

Link to Atlantic School of Theology Link to Saint Mary's University

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