Academic Freedom: Laval University Must Apologize and Right its Wrongs

The signatories of this letter, mostly university professors, are addressing members of the senior management of Laval University: Sophie D’Amours, Lyne Bouchard, Jean Lemay and Michel J. Tremblay*

On July 12, the open letter “Défendre la liberté universitaire sans condition,” co-signed by several university professors and other professionals, was published in the newspaper Le Soleil. Two days later, the same letter was published in Le Devoir. That letter—which asked for the lifting of the suspension without pay of professors Patrick Provost and Nicolas Derome, who were punished by Laval University for expressing opinions and concerns about childhood vaccination contrary to the commonly accepted narrative—did not bear fruit.

Indeed, the two professors are now at the end of their suspension, and not only has Laval University not backed down, but it appears that it has not even reacted to the many voices that have been raised to denounce the situation. Imposing a suspension on the eve of the summer vacations probably has the advantage of being able to turn away from the administration’s responsibilities without being noticed.

It should be remembered that the opinions expressed by the two professors, whether well-founded or not, are protected by the laws and regulations governing freedom of expression.

Their suspension directly contravenes the principles recently upheld by Laval University itself in its “Institutional Statement on the Protection and Enhancement of Freedom of Expression,” released on February 2, 2021. In this document, the University recognizes that “academic freedom protects the right to teach, learn, study and publish without fear of orthodoxy or the threat of reprisal and discrimination”.

But it goes further to say that it “aims at the protection and enhancement of freedom of expression”. The institution adds that “ideas, even controversial ones, should be allowed to be expressed, heard and debated”. It thus places only the following limits on academic freedom:

[…] the University may intervene if the idea or the manner of its expression contravenes

  • Canadian or Quebec laws, and their application, notably concerning defamation, hate speech or incitement to violence;
  • collective agreements, regulations or policies in effect at the University.

As the two suspended faculty members did not violate either of these limits, there is no justification for them to have been subject to such retaliationThey spoke outside the scope of their professorial duties and did not commit any serious misconduct (e.g., misappropriation of funds or falsification of their own research results). Their positions (freedom of expression) should not be confused with knowledge transmission activities.

But it goes even further: it appears that their “controversial” ideas cannot be “expressed, heard and debated,” precisely in the environment where they should be. If this is not allowed, then the university becomes a fortress of dogma.

It seems ironic that the suspensions have occurred not only despite the existence of your own statement on freedom of expression, but also at a time when the Quebec government has just passed Bill 32 to protect academic freedom in the university environment (last June).

You have chosen to resort to censorship, which has poisoned the environment for reasoned discussion and made universities hostile to intellectual inquiry, open debate and critical questioning. You have done so at a time when, with most Quebecers probably preferring to forget the crisis of the past two years, the spotlight is not on you.

Not only does this damage the name and reputation of your university, which may discourage many academics from associating with your institution, but it also deals a very serious blow to academic freedom. While it is recognized that professors should have complete freedom of expression, your decision sets a dangerous precedent that could put an end to academic freedom. Now, in Quebec, a university could decide to suspend or dismiss any professor who expresses opinions that disagree with its official position.

The sanctions against Professors Provost and Derome are extremely serious and represent an unprecedented setback to freedom of expression. This freedom has been the very foundation of universities since the Middle Ages, and with the continuation of these sanctions, Laval University, instead of being its guardian, has become its gravedigger.

Professors Provost and Derome will have served their suspensions to the end, a highly unacceptable situation that has given rise to numerous criticisms to which you have not even deigned to respond. We now ask you to make amends by publicly apologizing to them and to the university community.

Finally, we ask that you pay them the back-pay owed to them after eight weeks of unjustified suspension. And of course, we ask you to honor, not just on paper, the principle of academic freedom from now on.

Maximilian C. Forte, Professor of Anthropology, Concordia University

Anne-Hélène Jutras, lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Université de Montréal

Signed and affirmed by the following:

Yves-Marie Abraham, professeur agréxgé, HEC Montréal
Anne Marie Begué-Simon, Ph. D. en anthropologie et M.D., maitre de conférences des universités en socio-anthropologie à la Faculté de médecine de Rennes et ancienne professeure associée à l’Université Concordia
Monique Boily, professeure associée, département des sciences biologiques, UQAM
Douglas Bryce Farrow, professeur de théologie et d’éthique, Université McGill
Laurence Capus, professeure agrégée, Université Laval
Alessandro Colizzi, professeur associé, Politecnico di Milano (anciennement professeur à l’UQAM)
David Conciatori, professeur agrégé, Département de génie civil et de génie des eaux, Université Laval
Alain Deneault, professeur de philosophie, Université de Moncton
Myriam Ertz, professeure de marketing, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
Marie Fall, Ph. D., professeure au Département des sciences humaines et sociales, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
Laurence Guillaumie, Ph. D., professeure agrégée, Faculté des sciences infirmières, Université Laval
Serge Guiot, professeur associé, Université de Montréal
Paul H. Naccache, Ph. D., professeur titulaire à la retraite, Faculté de médecine, Université Laval
Emmanuel Hamel, Ph. D. en actuariat, chargé de cours à l’École d’actuariat de l’Université Laval et scientifique de données à l’Autorité des marchés financiers
Dr Paul Héroux, professeur de toxicologie et des effets de l’électromagnétisme sur la santé, Université McGill
Pierre J. Hamel, INRS
Claudine Jouny, enseignante en soins infirmiers, Cégep du Vieux-Montréal
André Joyal, Ph. D., 4 fois vacciné et survivant de la COVID
Marie-France Labrecque, professeure émérite, anthropologie, Université Laval
Valérie Lafrance, D. Ps., UQAM
Philippe Langlais, professeur titulaire au département d’informatique, Université de Montréal
Philippe Langlois, enseignant en science politique au Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu
Chantal Lapointe, Ph. D. en philosophie
Paul-André Lapointe, professeur titulaire au département des relations industrielles, Université Laval
Frédéric Lasserre, professeur au département de géographie, Université Laval
Dr Luc Lemaître, DMV, Université de Montréal
Daniel Lemire, professeur d’informatique, Université du Québec, TELUQ
Christian Linard, Ph. D., DEPD en biochimie clinique
Hélène Makdissi, professeure titulaire, Département d’études sur l’enseignement et l’apprentissage, Faculté des sciences de l’éducation, Université Laval
Normand Mousseau, professeur de physique, Université de Montréal
Lise Parent, Ph. D., professeure en sciences de l’environnement, Université TÉLUQ
Valériane Passaro, professeure, Département de mathématiques, Université du Québec à Montréal
Patrice Poubelle, professeur titulaire retraité, Faculté de médecine, Université Laval
Chantal Pouliot, professeure de didactique des sciences, Université Laval
Hadi Qaderi, professeur en science politiques, Cégep de Saint-Jérôme
Ariane Quintal, candidate au doctorat en bioéthique, Université de Montréal
Geneviève Rail, Ph. D., professeure émérite distinguée, Université Concordia
Denis Rancourt, Ph. D., chercheur, Association des libertés civiles de l’Ontario
Christophe Reutenauer, professeur de mathématiques, UQAM
Dany Rondeau, professeure de philosophie et d’éthique, Université du Québec à Rimouski
Fanie Roy, Ph. D. en psychologie, Université Laval
Josianne Roy, professeure de chimie, Campus Notre-Dame-de-Foy
Simon Ruelland, B. Sc. en biochimie et médecin omnipraticien, Côte-Nord
Lucie Sauvé, professeure émérite, Institut des sciences de l’environnement, UQAM
Alejandra Sánchez Álvarez, chargée d’enseignement en éducation à la petite enfance et conseillère pédagogique, Université Capilano
Jean-Philippe Sapinski, professeur d’études de l’environnement, Université de Moncton
Dr Snezana Stanojlovic, M. D., Université de Montréal
Paula St-Arnaud, psychoéducatrice, M. Sc., chargée de cours et candidate au doctorat en administration publique
Hugh Thomas, professeur de mathématiques, UQAM, et titulaire d’une chaire de recherche du Canada
Johanne Villeneuve, professeure titulaire au département d’études littéraires, UQAM
Florence Vinit, professeure au Département de psychologie, UQAM

*Sophie d’Amours is President of Université Laval; Lyne Bouchard is Vice-Rector, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Human Resources; Jean Lemay is Assistant Vice-Rector, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Human Resources; and, Michel J. Tremblay is Assistant Vice-Rector, Research, Creation and Innovation.