Before decolonization, deplatforming, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mandates, Indigenization, Black Lives Matter, safe spaces and the war on merit consumed intellectual life on Canadian campuses, there were the Mohammed cartoons. In February 2006 Mark Mercer, a philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, stood at the door of his colleague Peter March’s office, contemplating the infamous editorial renderings. Originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten a year earlier, the drawings caused an international contretemps (including violent riots) after numerous Islamic organizations and leaders demanded their destruction on the grounds that any printed image of the Muslim prophet is blasphemous.
March taped the cartoons to his door because he thought his students had the right to decide for themselves whether they were offensive or not. School administrators quickly decided no such right existed. March was told to remove the offending comics and, 17 years ago, the time-honoured concept of freedom of expression for all was replaced by a new right for some to be kept safe from self-defined offence.
As Mercer later noted in C2C Journal, “In ordering him to take down the cartoons, [the university was]…violating Dr. March’s academic freedom and dampening freedom of expression on campus.” As the March affair grew into a national news story, Mercer came to realize his school’s administrators had no interest in defending what he thought to be the core purpose of any university. They “consistently sacrificed academic values to serve such non-academic values as avoiding offense and promoting harmony.” Even worse, he wrote, very few of his colleagues felt the same way he did about intellectual freedom on campus. Notably, however, “One organization did stand up for freedom of expression at Saint Mary’s: The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.”
So began Mercer’s long connection to SAFS. Founded in 1992, the non-profit organization’s primary goal is to “maintain freedom in teaching, research and scholarship” at Canadian universities. It’s a lonely task. And getting lonelier, as universities have grown increasingly intolerant of heterodox opinions, unfettered debate and even the very notion of merit. Among recent examples of the decay are the firing of tenured Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson for expressing controversial views on Indigenous issues and DEI, the proliferation of race-based hiring programs, the chilling of free speech and open discourse and numerous disciplinary actions taken against academics for expressing a conservative viewpoint. Since the Mohammed cartoons, allegations of offensive behaviour backed by administrative sanction have become a trump card against free speech on campus.
Through it all, Mercer – who would become president of SAFS in 2015 – proved himself to be Canada’s most visible and vocal defender of academic freedoms. Befitting his organization’s foundational view that a university should be where opposing ideas are debated in a transparent and respectful fashion, Mercer’s main tools are a well-maintained website that scrupulously documents every new outrage, and sternly-worded letters from SAFS meant to draw added attention to such violations of intellectual freedom. The letters always invite their recipients, typically university administrators, to reply and engage in a civil discourse on the issues. They rarely do.
The campaign has at times become intensely personal. In 2020 Mercer was hauled before a disciplinary inquisition at Saint Mary’s over his own freedom of speech. This followed the uproar about University of Ottawa art professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval’s mention of the word n****r in a lecture on subversiveness in art. While she displayed no animus or intent to demean, its mere utterance offended some students and Lieutenant-Duval’s class was suspended pending a university investigation.
This prompted a requisite letter from SAFS. “The University of Ottawa could have simply affirmed Dr Lieutenant-Duval’s academic freedom in teaching and informed the students that their complaint was groundless,” Mercer wrote. He forwarded this letter to administrators at other universities. And because his email included the forbidden word spelled out in full, Mercer soon found himself caught up in the same punitive disciplinary inquiry that the SAFS deplores when it happens to others.
Mercer was accused of violating the school’s “Declaration of Respect.” After a process that dragged on for several months, Mercer finally agreed to a tersely worded statement of “regret” so he could get back to focusing on his teaching and research. While prudent and understandable, it is a decision that still rankles Mercer as it reveals the intense pressure placed on academics to conform to illiberal campus speech codes on pain of losing their jobs. “I do not regret having sent my message, even to those upset by it,” he later wrote, “but I’m sad anyone was upset.”
In 2020, SAFS was awarded the George Jonas Freedom Award for its “significant contributions to defending Canada as a free society.” This is largely in recognition of Mercer’s tireless efforts defending the notion that thinking and speaking freely without fear of administrative restrictions or punishment should constitute a university’s core mission. His recent book In Praise of Dangerous Universities and Other Essays expands on these important views.
As he steps down as SAFS president after serving eight tumultuous years, Mercer met with C2C Journal’s Patrick Keeney to discuss the descent of Canadian universities into “post-academic” institutions, the time-honoured significance of academic freedom and the SAFS’ determination to keep that flame alive on campuses that have become hostile to the very concept of intellectual autonomy.