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Executive director's corner / Academic freedom and national security

Executive director's corner / Academic freedom and national security

By David Robinson

Academic freedom, like all expressive freedoms, is particularly vulnerable during times of heightened national security concerns. In the 1950s and 1960s, anti-communist witch hunts targeted several prominent academics.

Mathematician Israel Halperin of Queen’s University was charged by the RCMP in the so-called Gouzenko Affair in 1946. Despite Halperin’s acquittal, some Queen’s board members still demanded he be dismissed. Mathematical physicist Leopold Infeld resigned from the University of Toronto in 1950, after baseless allegations that he had passed information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

It was no coincidence that both Halperin and Infeld were Jewish. Antisemitic tropes at the time painted Jews as foreign agents aligned with Moscow. In 1940, the head of the law school at the University of Toronto, W.P.M. Kennedy, required Bora Laskin to sign a loyalty oath as a condition of employment, pledging that he had no communist or subversive sympathies.

When he became president of CAUT in 1963, Laskin negotiated an agreement with Prime Minister Lester Pearson in response to growing concerns about RCMP investigations of academics and students. The Pearson-Laskin Accord, as it came to be known, allowed security agents onto campus only after informing the administration and the faculty association, and only to conduct security screening or “where there [were] definite indications that individuals may be involved in espionage or subversive activities.” The accord was reiterated in several ministerial directions, including the 1997 Security Investigations at Post-Secondary Educational Institutions.

The basic principle of the Pearson-Laskin Accord is that because of the importance of academic freedom, security agencies should not engage in general surveillance of universities and colleges. Only definitive threats to national security can justify investigations.

These same principles should apply as the federal government unveils new rules targeting perceived national security risks on campuses. Requirements to disclose risks in sensitive research areas, bans on research conducted with foreign institutions linked to military or security agencies, and a proposed registry of “foreign influencers” have all been introduced over the past year. While not explicitly stated, China is the perceived threat.

There may be legitimate national security risks arising from academic research, but we as a community have to guard against overreach. We must ensure that academics are not targeted because of their ethnicity, and that rules are not so broad as to restrict legitimate research and scholarship. Nor should a foreign influence law be misused to target academics who are critical of Canada’s military or foreign policy.

Consistent with the Pearson-Laskin Accord, to justify any restrictions on academic freedom the government must demonstrate the existence of a definitive threat with no other viable measures available.

We would do well to heed Benjamin Franklin’s famous warning: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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