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Anti-Terrorism Bill would limit academic freedom and campus speech, profs warn

(Ottawa – March 31, 2015) The organization representing Canada’s university and college professors is warning that the federal government’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation could put limits on academic freedom and free speech on campus.

In an analysis of the proposed legislation released today, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) says Bill C-51 poses serious risks to academic freedom by criminalizing certain speech “advocating terrorism”, and granting security agencies greater powers to monitor and share information about academics and students engaged in legitimate and lawful activities.

“Given the ambiguous and broad scope of the new offence of advocating terrorism, academics may well be exposed to prosecution,” said CAUT President Robin Vose. “A professor leading a classroom debate about whether terrorism might be justified in some circumstances, such as in apartheid South Africa, may now run afoul of the law.”

CAUT Executive Director David Robinson adds there is no educational defence against the new offence as there is in Canada’s anti-hate speech law.

“This means that academics could not claim as a defence that things they say or write about that might violate the new law had a legitimate educational purpose,” said Robinson. “The failure to grant a public interest or educational exception poses a serious risk to legitimate debate and free speech on campus.”

Additionally, Robinson says Bill C-51 significantly expands security agencies’ power to share information without proper oversight.

“Professors studying controversial topics could be subjected to surveillance and sharing of personal information between government agencies without their knowledge,” Robinson said. “This broad and unaccountable information sharing will have a chilling effect on academic freedom and other forms of expression.”

Robinson notes that the Bill would also undo agreements made in the past to limit the activities of security agencies on university and college campuses. In 1961, Conservative Justice Minister E. Davie Fulton ordered the RCMP to halt all campus investigations. Two years later, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and CAUT President Bora Laskin reached an Accord intended to limit and provide oversight of RCMP activities on campus.

“The fact that both Conservative and Liberal governments in the past took steps to limit intelligence operations on campus highlights a consensus that such activities can adversely affect academic freedom and free speech,” said Robinson. “That consensus is not reflected in Bill C-51.”