Bench Memos

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Fear and Loathing in Toronto, Part III


What do the Toronto petition’s signers want?  Only to call attention to a problem, and (to coin a phrase) to speak truth to power.  Unlike the anti-New Orleans crowd, we do not want the APSA to move the meeting away from Toronto, nor do we plan to boycott Toronto next year.  (Some of us will be wearing buttons saying “Toronto 2009? Non!” at the Boston meeting later this week, but their purpose is to start a conversation, not a rebellion.)  We plan to be in Toronto, speaking out on subjects on which Canadian HRCs have repeatedly tried to cow their fellow countrymen, and conducting panels on the fate of free speech in Canada and other liberal democracies.


And unlike the anti-New Orleans folks, whose worries (about, e.g., same-sex partners running risks in Louisiana with their medical care) are mostly speculative, we think we have reasonable grounds for concern.  Have professors been silenced in Canada by the proceedings—or the threats—of the HRCs?  We can’t say, but we’d like to hear from any who have.  And the non-academic cases “tried” by HRCs do give us pause.  Will academic speech be next?  Will the HRCs have more respect for visiting foreigners holding a meeting in their country than they have for their own citizens?  Who can predict who will be next on the chopping block when the butchers of free speech begin to ply their trade with official power?  A few years ago we would all have hooted with laughter to think of Maclean’s magazine being put on trial for publishing opinion on world affairs.


Many of us have friends and professional acquaintances among Canada’s political scientists.  We look forward to holding this debate on their home soil.  So far our feedback from north of the border is divided, but with the majority supporting our intention to make a stink about the clear and present Canadian danger to free speech.  Those in the minority understandably rise in defense of their country (native or adoptive), and assure us that academic freedom is alive and well in Canada.  But that is not what we hear from every quarter.


And the Canadian situation is not just a useful club for us to use in striking the APSA.  True, we have two objects in view.  One of them is to call the APSA back to its proper purposes—to remember that alone among the legitimate exceptions to its constitutional neutrality in political life is its commitment to defend free inquiry into political subjects.  But the other is to call America’s closest ally, biggest trading partner, and most intimate neighbor back to our shared, Anglo-North American commitment to freedom of expression, due process, and the rule of law.  It is to call Canada back to its best self.


We hope our Canadian colleagues will understand that we cannot come to Toronto next year and remain silent about these matters.  Many of them, we know, will join us in a vigorous dialogue on all of them.


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