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Targeting Academic and Speech Freedoms: The Case of Canadian Professor Denis Rancourt

by Stephen Lendman Saturday, Apr. 03, 2010 at 10:03 AM

academic and speech freedoms endangered

Targeting Academic and Speech Freedoms: The Case of Canadian Professor Denis Rancourt - by Stephen Lendman

Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a constitutional bill of rights, states:

"Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

(d) freedom of association."

Article 7 assures "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person and the right not to be deprived thereof in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."

According to Yale Law Professor and constitutional scholar Thomas I. Emerson (1908 - 1981):

"Maintenance of a system of free expression is necessary (1) as assuring individual self-fulfillment, (2) as a means of attaining the truth, (3) as a method of securing participation by the members of society in social, including political, decision-making, and (4) as maintaining the balance between stability and change in society."

With no free expression right, all others are at risk at a time dissent is called a threat to national security, terrorism, or treason. Howard Zinn called it "the highest form of patriotism," and according to Voltaire, "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

In a post-9/11 climate, it's more than ever endangered, academic tenure affording no protection; to wit, Professor Denis Rancourt's University of Ottawa (U of O) March 31, 2009 firing, ostensibly for pedagogical reasons, but as he said:

"I was fired under the false pretext of having arbitrarily assigned high grades in one course in the winter 2008 semester. (To do so), the university had to dispense with due process. In the words of the professors' union's lawyer, my dismissal was 'both a denial of substantive and procedural rights....and a contravention of the basic principles of natural justice.' "

On, he states:

"Most students agree to give up their independence of thought and enquiry and to serve the insane system of due dates and senseless assignments in exchange for the certificate (a degree. They spend four years) to be certified persistently obedient. (In return, they get) access to a privileged position in the wage hierarchy and professional social status. It's a trade....It requires survival....that, in turn, requires adopting the ideology of the profession....and self-indoctrination" to expunge the impulse to learn. "Your soul (is exchanged) for a place in the sun."

Rancount's "critical pedagogy" focuses on learning, not regurgitating professorial views for high grades, or as he said in a January 5, 2009 letter to Marc Jolicoeur, Chairman of the University Board of Governors:

His focus shifted "from evaluation to education, from rank ordering of students to learning (to remove) intimidation and anxiety from the educational equation. As a result, student performances in my courses have improved significantly and in fact have been excellent." University interference was "politically motivated and resisted in the name of academic freedom and in defence of the best education for my students."

His political activism lay behind "the university's attempts to discipline (him) since September 2005;" specifically over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "in articles, on radio, in blog postings, at public venues, and in classes."

In 2007, after criticizing the university's position on academically boycotting Israel, repression against him intensified after Allan Rock became president on June 3, 2008 - a former Canadian politician, UN ambassador, and staunch Israeli supporter.

On his March 8 U of O Watch blog posting, Rancourt said Rock, as UN ambassador, "abruptly changed Canada's longstanding policy on Israel," henceforth "vot(ing) against UN resolutions for Palestinian human rights along with the US and Israel," contrary to virtually all other UN members save for a Pacific island or two.

As U of O president, he was "reprimanded by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for banning a student poster about Israeli Apartheid Week, (then) strong-armed a student union president into distancing the (organization) from the student-run Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) which had expressed a principled stance towards Israel."

In September 2008 at Rock's urging, the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors (EBOG) suspended Rancourt, recommended dismissing him in December, barred him from campus, then fired him in March 2009.

A University of Ottawa physics professor, he was tenured, a full professor since 1997, a recognized expert in his field, and a "phenomenal teacher" according to members of the Environmental Studies Student Association for providing an "extremely enriching individualized....empower(ing and) positive learning environment where inspired students gained confidence and courage."

How could his pedagogical approach and grading methods "justify ordering the university police to remove (and ban him) from campus, (assign) his graduate students to other faculty, fir(e) his post doctoral research fellow, and summarily fir(e) him without due process?"

It's "particularly ironic given its Vision 2010 strategic plan (stating) that the university will "Support and recognize initiatives designed to implement a range of new and diversified strategies for learning and evaluation."

Rancourt wanted a stronger, more democratic U of O - better pedagogically with a new syllabus, community service offerings, course content, and right to challenge established practices.

He was also vocal on environmental concerns, professional ethics, lobbying, media influence, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response, university officials tried to silence him, finally by dismissal, the same disposition for others like Bard College's Joel Kovel, De Paul University's Norman Finkelstein, and University of Colorado's Ward Churchill, each distinguished academicians, scholars, and outspoken critics of injustice.

Until his July 2007 firing, Churchill was an award-winning tenured professor. He sued, prevailed, was reversed at the district court level, appealed, and was supported by National Lawyers Guild, Center for Constitutional Rights, Society of American Law Teachers, Latina/O Critical Legal Theory, and Law Professors and Attorneys through amici curiae filings to reverse the lower court's ruling. In summary of argument comments, they stated:

"Academic freedom, a central component of the First Amendment (similar to Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and essential to a thriving democracy, is imperiled when state university officials succumb to political pressure to fire a tenured professor over constitutionally protected statements. Affording the shield of absolute immunity to university officials and vacating a jury finding of wrongful discharge in violation of the First Amendment threatens the fundamental rights of all faculty members."

Such action "will have a chilling effect on professors, students, and citizens whose speech is unpopular but constitutionally protected. The resultant suppression of free inquiry and critical thinking vitiates the First Amendment and undermines the foundation of higher learning in this country."

It holds for Canada under constitutionally protected freedoms, Rancourt saying tenure produces obedient academics who won't challenge injustices in society or their university environs. He wrote:

"One antidote to the university as boot camp in the service of capital is for tenured professors to use their tenure. This would turn tenure on its head, as it is free society's coercive tool of choice for fabricating aligned and docile academics. Not the job security itself....but the filtering and moulding process known as the tenure track....Tenure is death, risk is life, and collaboration is criminal. Collaborating in an institutionalized system of resource looting, labour exploitation, and genocidal demographic engineering is criminal, especially when its ultimate weapon is the foremost crime known as war, such as the present Canadian war in Afghanistan."

In a detailed February 23, 2009 brief (five weeks before his firing), he said university officials used a "fast track process" against him, wouldn't engage in dialogue, and refused to evaluate him by a committee of his peers to facilitate his firing:

"on a first offence without ever having the right to be heard at any stage, including the final decision meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors....Canadian society is witnessing the contrived and intentional firing of an outspoken dissident professor, as harsh as the most prominent recent cases in the US under Bush" that continue under Obama.

Freedom of information (FOI) documents showed intense illegal university surveillance, "including an extensive use of a student spy and the hiring of professional reporters to produce commented transcripts of my academic and conference talks at other universities."

Methods used included:

-- "covertly recording conversations of others;

-- covertly attending a presentation....under false pretence and covertly voice recording the event and preparing reports;

-- using a false Facebook identity (Maureen Robinson = Nathalie page) to covertly join activist student events and discussion groups;

-- using a false Facebook identity to covertly make enquiries about student events;

-- using a false gmail make covert email enquiries;

-- making false pretence enquiries to outside (blog) editors and outside conference organizers;" and other methods.

Rancourt concluded that "This may be the first time in North American academic history that a university administration (through its highest legal office) hire(d) a student to practice extensive covert surveillance of a professor and (other) students" in violation of Canadian and international law.

Part VI - Invasion of Privacy under the Criminal Code of Canada prohibits "private communication" intercepts from one person to another within Canada. Provision 184(1) states:

"Every one who, by means of any electro-magnetic, acocustic, mechanical or other device, willfully intercepts a private communication is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years."

Provision 193(1) prohibits disclosure of illegal intercepts, subjecting offenders to imprisonment for up to two years.

Article 17 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

"No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation (and) Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

Article 19 states:

"Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference."

FOI evidence also revealed interference to prevent Rancourt from reserving an auditorium, secure computing services, participate in campus demonstrations, enlist students for research projects, accept new graduate students, negotiate his teaching load, propose new courses and curriculum changes among other things. In addition, since 2005, measures "included a multitude of tenuous and invalid disciplinary attempts and interventions including and not limited to....the Dean barging into" his....Physics and the Environment course to close it down."

In 19 prior U of O teaching years, he hadn't once encountered discipline. Thereafter it became intense, malicious, repeated, and wholly unjustified, culminating in his dismissal because of Allan Rock's collusion with Israeli Lobby efforts to "enforce (its) ideological alignment within the University...."

As a result, "At a snap (December 10, 2008) meeting, (he) was effectively summarily dismissed, physically barred from campus, and escorted off the premises by university police" for bogus reasons. Then on January 23, 2009, he was "arrested, cuffed and removed from campus by Ottawa Police" by order of the university administration, "and charged with trespass to property - while hosting (his) weekly Cinema Academica event."

In a December 2009 posting, he called the actions against him "an indicator of emergent fascism. (It's) not a distant historical anomaly. It is an optimum end-state towards which large-scale disruptive and predatory economic hierarchies tend. It is the state of total and unchallenged control of every facet of life by corporate masters of the economy, achieved by an optimized balance of force and a designed mental and social environment. Independent thought is eliminated (and its) influence rendered foreign."

America is already in an advanced state, Canada close behind toward a dark future, prevented only by "authentic (determined) rebellion."

Letters Supporting Professor Rancourt

Ones from U of O included:

Adjunct Professor Valerie Whiffen, School of Psychology, calling the university's action "an appalling and unprecedented lack of respect for both academic freedom and due process" in urging his immediate reinstatement.

Department of Criminology Adjunct Professor Robert Gaucher calling the attack on academic freedom "extremely upsetting....I am appalled by it....If a colleague with such outstanding credentials can be treated (this way), then the academic freedom of all of us is threatened."

Instructor and doctoral candidate Claire Delisle, Department of Criminology, expressing concern about the university "exercising rigid control over the staff and the students" and for subverting academic freedom.

Ones from other universities included:

Members of College and University Workers United (CUWU) calling Rancourt "a dedicated educator and a fearless defender of justice (for his) stand for human rights and students' rights. We are thankful to count Denis Rancourt among the rare public intellectuals who do not compromise their principles when they become aware of institutional folly; but instead use their positions to expose and correct flawed practices....We conclude that the charges (against him) are a contrived pretext, that they are preposterous as reasons to summarily remove a tenured professor...."

University of Manitoba Mineralogy and Crystallography Professor, Frank C. Hawthorne, calling Rancourt "an outstanding scientist (among the very) few of his calibre, (a man) the community can ill afford to lose...."

Ryerson University Professor Emeritus Helmut Burkhardt calling the action against him "totally inadmissible...."

Drexel University Assistant Professor of Sociology Mary Ebeling calling Rancourt's firing "truly shocking (for having) violated, with impunity, the very principle of academic freedom" U of O claims to uphold.

Babes-Bolyai University (Romania) Faculty of Economics and Business Administration Assistant Edmond Nawrotzky-Torok saying he was "appalled by the violation of academic freedom and the totalitarianism which seems to characterize a university that allegedly stands for 'freedom of expression in an atmosphere of open dialogue, enabling critical thought.' "

Retired McGill University Biology Professor John Southin expressed academic freedom concerns.

University of Western Ontario Professor Emeritus Arthur Jutan, Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, said:

"It takes an extreme level of courage to stand up to the Emperor. I congratulate you for this. Long after these Houses of cards come falling down, and they will some day, and new more solid structures to replace them are built....your name will be remembered, as someone who had the courage to stand up to all the administrative hacks, that tried to hang onto their little deck chairs as the Titanic slowly slipped under the sea."

University of Calgary Associate English Professor, Aruna Srivastava "express(ed) not simply dismay but shock that a university would adopt such heavy-handed tactics to eliminate (a colleague) whose opinions and ideas were (to some) abrasive and unpopular."

Guelph University & Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, University Professor Emeritus John McMurtry, described a similar "harrowing witch-hunt" he once endured, saying "It will be an enduring disgrace if this shocking administrator persecution is permitted to stand."

University of Lethbridge Professor of Globalization Studies, Anthony Hall, compared Rancourt's persecution "to a twenty-first century Canadian version of the Spanish Inquisition."

Others expressed their alarm and disgust as should we all in condemning assaults on academic and speech freedoms, democratic principles, and inalienable liberty in a free and open society.

Mark Twain called "irreverence....the champion of liberty and its only sure defense." Benjamin Franklin explained that "Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." John Stuart Mill called the "evil of silencing the expression of an opinion....robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation...."

US Supreme Court William O. Douglas spoke for others in calling "Restriction on free thought and free speech....the most dangerous of all subversions....It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies. (There must be no restraint against the right to) protest even against the moral code that the standard of the day sets...."

From the web site wewon', "My free speech is not negotiable."

Nor are human and civil rights, social justice, and democratic freedoms, ones that tolerate no subversion of constitutionally guaranteed rights because the alternative is repugnant despotism.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at Also visit his blog site at and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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