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Free expression - who pays the price? Wednesday, September 17

Free expression, from whistleblowing to academic freedom

September 19, 2014 — 

Speaking on the importance of free expression at Visionary Conversations on September 17, President and Vice-Chancellor David Barnard called “balance and competing rights and competing legitimate expectations” the “warp and woof of the conversation.”

All three expert panelists stressed the complexity and tension inherent to the matter of free expression in different fields. In addition to President Barnard, panelists included director of clinical education in the Faculty of Law Sarah Lugtig and CBC managing editor and U of M alumnus Cecil Rosner.

The stimulating first session of the 2014-2015 Visionary Conversations series was part of Homecoming 2014, and many university alumni were in the audience.

“Free expression: Who pays the price?” was the evening’s topic. The discussion included a lengthy question-and-answer period, and ranged from issues of academic freedom to whistleblower protections and concern over the increasing power of corporations, and from Canada’s defamation laws to the implications of social media and online anonymity.

Lugtig overviewed the role of Canadian law in free expression. The legal framework, she said, acts as a shield, a sword and a support to this freedom. The Charter of Rights is an example of the law acting as a shield, she said.

Other times, she continued, “the law acts as a sword, to intervene in someone else’s expression to protect another person, or to protect another vulnerable group, from the harm that expression might visit on them.”

A third role of the law is to act as a support, “to foster expression,” she said, “to encourage us to express ourselves in important ways.” She named Manitoba’s Public Interest Disclosure Act (whistleblower legislation) as an example.

Rosner expanded on Lugtig’s discussion of whistleblower protection in the context of media organizations and journalism, suggesting that whistleblowers and journalists pay “too high a cost.”

He pointed to our dependence on media for information, suggesting that investigative reporting is the best route to information beyond official sources. “A lot of media is stage-managed,” he said. “There’s other information that never gets to the media.”

Drawing later on the famous example of the Pentagon Papers — U.S. Department of Defense documents about its involvement in Vietnam discovered by Daniel Ellsberg and published in the New York Times in 1971 — Rosner said, “National security is sometimes a matter of perspective. One man’s national security is another’s cover up.”

Beyond protection in law, he said, “how we encourage whistleblowers, and how we equip the media to protect them and ensure their messages get through, are crucial issues for the preservation of effective freedom of expression in Canada.”


President Barnard: Academic freedom is a “critical underpinning of university research and teaching.”


Addressing the role of free expression in an academic setting, President Barnard said that academic freedom is a “valuable principle that we should all … defend.” He called it a “critical underpinning of university research and teaching.”

“If it is so valuable,” Barnard continued, “why is there sometimes controversy surrounding it?” The ways in which academic freedom is enacted, understood or applied, he suggested, are not straightforward in practical terms. He cited the examples of the recent termination of a University of Saskatchewan dean and the recent controversy regarding the suggestion by university presidents that academic debates be conducted with civility.

“With rights usually come responsibilities,” he said. The U of M’s Statement of Apology and Reconciliation to Residential School survivors was “an admission that we did not responsibly use our academic freedom.”

Asked during the question-and-answer period about the influence of corporations on universities, the president emphasized, “We need to clearly be committed to academic freedom, encouraging [academics and students] to speak their views, not to be limited … by university adminstrations, not by governments, not by churches — as was the case with Galileo [the example with which he began his presentation] — not by corporations, not by anyone, not by donors.

“We don’t want that kind of constraint.”


Follow up with further reading on the Visionary Conversations page or see the entire discussion (video below).


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