Who pays the price? Freedom of expression the topic of latest Visionary Conversation

Who is it that pays the price for our freedom of expression? That was the question of the night at the University of Manitoba’s first annual Visionary Conversation of the 2014-2015 year. The event provided an opportunity to explore the topic of free speech within a Canadian context.

Joanne Kesselman, academic vice-president and provost, moderated the event held at the Robert B. Schultz Theatre on Sept. 17. She described freedom of speech and freedom of the press as an “important cornerstone of democracy” given its inclusion in the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Representing law, media, and academia respectively, Kesselmen introduced the event’s three speakers — alumna Sarah Lugtig, a human rights lawyer and director of experiential learning with the U of M’s faculty of law; alumus Cecil Rosner, CBC Manitoba’s managing editor and author of Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada and co-author of When Justice Fails: the David Milgaard Story; and David Barnard, president and vice-chancellor of the U of M, and current chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Lugtig, whose recent work focuses on better enabling those with low income access to justice, spoke first, comparing the legal framework surrounding freedom of expression as a support, a sword, and a shield in the way it interacts with Canadian society. It does this by protecting, intervening, or fostering expression among individuals in difficult circumstances, said Lugtig.


She asked the audience to consider three open-ended questions of the sort court tribunals have had to ask themselves in the last 20 years. One such question was whether Manitoba’s anti-harassment law should apply to universities in the context of academic papers or presentations that might cover topics some people could find offensive or as harassment.

To discus the evening’s topic from a media context, Rosner—“responsible for all of CBC’s radio, television and digital editorial content in the province,” reads his bio for the event—spoke about the difficulties the media can face in bringing the public its news, and how this can be made even more difficult when well-funded organisations seek to influence or impede the dissemination of facts they do not want made public.

“A great deal of the media is stage-managed,” Rosner said speaking on how the freedom of the press can become a problem of which party has better financial backing.

“There’s other information that never gets to the media.”

“National security is sometimes a matter of perspective. One man’s national security is another’s cover up,” said Rosner, further raising questions about the fine line between conflicting views on protecting privacy and protecting the general public.

Whistleblower legislation—laws meant to protect individuals providing information on the wrong-doings of institutions or individuals—was another topic Rosner brought up. He spoke about their crucial role, but also the possibility that current legislation is lacking when it comes to protecting those individuals who come forward.

“Whistleblowers in our society are paying far too heavy a price for alerting people to these important facts. They’re getting disciplined; they’re getting fired, in some cases they’re getting sent to jail. [ . . . ] In most cases their only crime has been revealing inconvenient truths.”

Dr. Barnard was the last speaker and he brought examples of the controversy surrounding academic freedoms. One example was a recent situation where a Saskatchewan professor was terminated from both his administrative position and his tenured academic position for the alleged criticism of some of his university’s decisions.

“Academic freedom is a valuable principle, and we should all—academics and general public—defend it.”
Other relevant modern issues concerning academic freedom revolved around the possibilities of bullying within an academic context between peers where tenure might be at stake.

“These things happen,” said Barnard, adding “[and they are] are difficult to deal with.”

Barnard ended by emphasizing to the audience exactly how complex the evening’s topic was by telling them that there are “reasonable limits prescribed by law in the exercise of rights,” and the Ontario Humans Rights Commission has an “official policy on balancing rights in which the first consideration is that no rights are absolute.”

“Perhaps the greatest threat to academic freedom is not in applying it carefully and thoughtfully but in the tendency to enlarge it, so that it appears to trump all other rights. This would be protecting privilege without responsibility.”

With the panellists done speaking, the floor opened to comments from the audience. For those who could not attend the event in person, a live stream was made available online with the option of following along on Twitter through the #umvisionary hashtag.

A completely new online tool also debuted this year that gave individuals the opportunity to participate by submitting questions to the speakers through the umanitoba.cnf.io website. Individuals could also rank the questions posted. Of these, a number were chosen and directed to the speakers.

Question topics ranged from issues of Canada’s defamation laws, to Internet anonymity on social media, to the increasing power of corporations – all within the larger context of their implications on free expression.
The entire event was filmed and is available for free viewing on the university’s Youtube page at http://youtu.be/lMrZTjw8ADU.

The next instalment for the Visionary Conversations series will be titled “Giving the Red Light the Green Light – Would Legalizing Prostitution Change Canada?” and will take place Oct. 15 with a reception starting at 6:30 p.m. with discussion to follow at 7 p.m.

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