Mount Allison University Professor Rima Azar feels a strong identification to Canada. Born in Lebanon during a civil war, Azar developed a lasting appreciation for the freedoms of Canada, particularly free speech. An accomplished academic in the field of health psychology, she often discusses her views of political and social issues on her personal blog Bambi’s Afkar from her unique perspective. However, she recently ran afoul of an individual who spotted comments denying that Canada is a racist country and criticizing Black Lives Matter as an organization. The individual compiled an array of what was viewed to be objectionable positions and triggered a movement to have Azar fired. In a direct attack on free speech and academic freedom, the University then suspended Azar without pay.
According to the CBC, after months of investigation, Azar will not have to go through “equity, diversity and inclusion training” for her expressing such thoughts on a personal blog. The grounds? Azar was cited by students as “denying systemic racism,” “talking about BIPOC students in unkind ways” and “labelling Black Lives Matter a radical group,” among other transgressions. These improper thoughts include stating “[New Brunswick] is NOT racist. Canada is NOT racist. We do not have ‘systemic’ racism or ‘systemic’ discrimination. We just have systemic naivety because we are a young country and because we want to save the world.”
That is a statement that should generate considerable debate and passion on a college campus. That is what higher education once valued in fostering a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives. The response of the students of Mount Allison was to seek to silence and punish Azar rather than respond to her views. To the shock of some academics, like Mark Mercer, head of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, the University caved to the demands and suspended Azar. The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has also supported Azar against her university.
The targeting of Azar began when she disagreed with local activist Husoni Raymond who denounced New Brunswick as “systemically racist.” Raymond stated in response that it is “[d]isappointing to see a professor who’s still ignorant to what racism is and will be using her power within the institution to uphold racists ideologies. Racism IS in Canada. Racism IS in NB.”
[Notably, Azar was not arguing that there was no racism in Canada but that the country is not “systematically racist,” a point of distinction that has produced other controversies in academia].
Azar then responded to Raymond by saying:
“NB is NOT racist. Canada is NOT racist. We do not have ‘systemic’ racism or ‘systemic’ discrimination. We just have systemic naivety because we are a young country and because we want to save the world.
Oh, one quick question to Mr. Husoni Raymond: Upon your graduation from St. Thomas University, you have been named the 2020 recipient of the Tom McCann Memorial Trophy for your ‘strong leadership and character’ … If NB is as racist as you are claiming, would one of its prestigious universities be honouring you like that?”
Azar also disagreed with statements that Canada remains a “patriarchy” afflicted by rape culture. She suggested that people like her from the Middle East have seen “real rape culture” and perhaps readers might want to consider “ISIS practices in Syria.” She also said that BLM is a radical organization, which is a view shared by many and contested by many others.
We recently discussed the case of a police officer who was fired for calling BLM members “terrorists” on a personal postings. Twitter recently censored criticism of a BLM founder and we have been discussing the targeting of professors who voice dissenting opinions about the Black Lives Matter movement, police shootings, or aspects of the protests around the country from the University of Chicago to Cornell to Harvard to other schools. Students have also been sanctioned for criticism BLM and anti-police views at various colleges. Even a high school principal was fired for stating that “all lives matter.” Each of these controversies raise concerns over the countervailing statements against police or Republicans or other groups.
I am admittedly a free speech dinosaur. I believe in largely unfettered free speech, particularly for statements made off campus or outside of a classroom. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. We previously wrote about academic freedom issues at University of Rhode Island due to its Director of Graduate Studies of History Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.
My greatest concern is the conflicted positions on free speech that emerge from these cases. Universities generally do not take similar actions when faculty or students denounce other organizations like the Republican Party or the NRA as terrorists or murderers. They do not take action against those who write racist attacks on white people or sexist attacks on males, as discussed above. The result is not just the sanctioning of faculty for exercising free speech but the biased application of such measures based on the content of such speech.
In a memo sent to faculty, staff and students on Tuesday, Mount Allison’s communications director Robert Hiscock said that “[o]ver the past two months, an independent investigator has reviewed complaints from students alleging discriminatory conduct, stemming from blog posts and student interactions.” However, he said that the findings remain confidential and cannot be discussed. Azar should consider sending a letter asking for the full report to be made public and waiving the right to confidentiality. Otherwise, her reputation will continue to be attacked without any ability to address the allegations in public fully and transparently. For example, there is an allegation that Azar improperly referred to particular students by name in her criticism. However, we do not know if those students previously made their names public in exchanges with or criticism of Azar. There is a major difference between spontaneously criticizing a student who has not spoken publicly and responding to a student who has elected to participate in a public debate by name.
Azar now has a GoFundMe campaign to assist her in the coming legal challenge.