Academic Freedom and Responsibility: Understanding the case of Professor Anthony Hall – Update August 24, 2019

HallULethbridge

Professor Hall retired from the University of Lethbridge in October 2018. He is now Professor Emeritus. He retired because the university environment became too toxic for him to work in as a result of his having been falsely accused of antisemitism.

A full and accurate story of what occurred has yet to be told. It is an important story because of what we all can learn about what needs to be done to protect academic freedom. What does it really mean for a university to be a liberal university? The University of Lethbridge claims that it is, but is it?

The story is also important because of what it tells us about the role that universities play in shaping public opinion during times of conflict – the “war on terror” has been going on for many years now. Do universities serve the prevailing power structure, or do they check that power in the service of peace and justice for all?

If you are new to this story go to The main story with updates from 2016 – 2018 for background.


On August 9, 2019, the Honourable Shannon Phillips, member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Lethbridge West, published a smackdown of Professor Emeritus Anthony Hall on her Facebook page. Lethbridge West is the electoral district in which Professor Anthony Hall resides. 

The reason why this matters is not just that it harms the reputation of Dr. Hall, but also that it silences others at the University of Lethbridge who might otherwise discuss topics brought up by Dr. Hall. Phillips’s smackdown is a continuation of political interference in academic freedom conducted by the New Democratic Party (NDP). Another example of this interference is the statement of the former NDP Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, published on the website for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Interference like this induces a chill in which some are silenced, but no one knows for sure who has been silenced, or what it is they think they need to be silent about. Here is an example. In 2017 I audited a course at the University of Lethbridge called “Modern Media, War and Propaganda”. It was a good course. However, not once did the topic of 9/11 come up as an event with a possible propaganda purpose behind it, either as a false flag operation or as an act of propaganda on the part of al Qaeda. Is this because the professor was not confident that the university would protect him if a discussion of 9/11 took an impolitic direction? Perhaps, perhaps not, but, under the circumstances, how could anyone but the professor himself know what were the reasons for including – or excluding, as the case may be – certain topics in the course content. In light of what happened to Professor Hall in 2016 there was great pressure to avoid being seen as a propagator of “repugnant” views. At the same time, given the efforts of the university to maintain its image as a place of academic freedom, there was (and still is) pressure to not admit to being muzzled. 

Phillips’s smackdown was part of a New Democratic Party (NDP) campaign of opposition to the plan of  the recently elected United Conservative Party (UCP) to introduce legislation to protect freedom of expression at post-Secondary institutions in Alberta based on the Chicago Principles. The UCP was voted into office in April 2019, winning 63 seats out of a total of 87. The NDP had held power since May 2015, and Shannon Phillips was one of the 24 NDP MLAs who retained their seat.

In response to Phillips’s smackdown I wrote a letter to the new Alberta Minister of Advanced Education. The letter, titled Support for the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression, contains further details and arguments surrounding this very important issue. See also the reply by Professor Paul Viminitz of the University of Lethbridge, which follows the letter. Further commentary in the comment box is welcome.

To the Honourable Minister of Advanced Education, Demetrios Nicolaides,

Your interview with Danielle Smith, “Free Speech on Campus”, on her radio show on August 2, 2019 was reassuring to me. I am very pleased that the UCP is endorsing the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression. All the same, while I do not doubt your benign intent, I fear that political pressures may distort implementation of the principles in ways that will take you by surprise.

I have enormous respect for some of the critics of a similar move by the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario – for example, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, in its article Ontario “free speech” requirements for universities and colleges cause for concern, or that of Jim Turk, Director of the Centre for Free Expression in his post, A manufactured crisis: the Ford government’s troubling free speech mandate.

Turk says “The Ford government policy is based on the false premise that freedom of expression is endangered at Canadian universities. It is not.” I think Turk is wrong about this. Freedom of expression is endangered at Canadian universities. Unfortunately, here in Alberta the former NDP government contributed to the decline of universities in their role as a pillar of democracy. As Robert M. Hutchins says (quoting from the principles), “Without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.”

I will return to this point, but first let us consider the primary point that the critics make: universities must be free from government interference in matters of academic freedom and of freedom of expression. How can we be sure that the UCP government will not selectively apply the Chicago Principles in such a way as to favour its own policies?

There needs to be an arrangement of some kind that puts whatever government is in power at arm’s length with respect to the protection of freedom of expression. As an individual citizen I have decided to set up a study group to watch how the principles get implemented at the University of Lethbridge, and what the actual effects are. Perhaps I will be able to report more to you about this at a later date.

I return now to the damage done to Alberta universities by the NDP. One illustration of the misdirected pressure they exert is provided by MLA Shannon Phillips, who responded to your interview with Danielle Smith with a video on her Facebook page (August 9, 2019). Here is a transcript of what she said:

“So today we learned that Jason Kenney’s minister responsible for universities, Demetrios Nicolaides, wants to protect anti-semitism and hate speech at our universities. He wants to impose a new so-called free speech standard for universities. It’s developed in the United States. It’s called the Chicago Principles. All this sounds a little bit academic, until a radio host asked him “What kind of problem are you trying to solve with this? What’s an example of speech that’s protected under these so-called Chicago Principles?” And the Minister’s answer was to bring up the case of Tony Hall. Tony Hall used to teach right here at the University of Lethbridge. He was suspended without pay in 2016. He finally left for good a few months later. But let me tell you the kinds of things Tony Hall wanted to teach his students. He spread Holocaust denial. He claimed 9/11 was a “Zionist” job. He argued that the leader of the KKK had some good theories. It should go without saying that a Minister should not protect a Holocaust denier. It is beneath the dignity of the office. Jason Kenney needs to put an immediate stop to this dangerous game. Alberta, we are better than this.”

I responded to this with a comment I put on her Facebook page as follows:

“Shannon I love you, but you have been misled by the B’nai Brith, the Calgary Jewish Federation, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. How do you know Tony Hall is a racist and hateful? Can you point to anything he said? Are you aware that the Alberta Human Rights Commission rejected the complaint against Tony that the university sent it?

When Tony was suspended from the University of Lethbridge he tried to correct your misimpressions of him, but your office turned him away. I myself was turned away from the office of another MLA. Perhaps the NDP preferred to make political use of a scapegoat, rather than try to get at the truth of the matter.

I have known Tony for 3 years now, and have had many conversations with him. I have never heard him say anything that was racist or hateful. I can see why others view him that way because he is an impassioned critic of injustice. He is an historian of the oppression of native American peoples, and sees a similar pattern of oppression going on in the Middle East. By accusing him of things like “Holocaust denial” we are deflected from considering the role of our own institutions in the murder of millions.

Regarding “Holocaust denial” Tony did say that all historical events should be open to revision. That’s very far from saying that the Holocaust did not happen. Do you think that there are historical events that should not be reconsidered in the light of new evidence and ways of thinking? Why does this issue have to be seen as if it were binary, as if either you deny the Holocaust or you do not? Was historian Gerald Reitlinger a “Holocaust denier” because he estimated the number of Jews killed to be 4.6 million? Is it an indicator of hatred that he didn’t estimate it at 6?

Many of the comments on this Facebook page display hatred toward Tony. As an advocate for freedom of speech I defend the rights of you all to say these things. Bringing them out into the open gives others, like me, the chance to try to correct your impressions. It is the only hope I see to correct the misperception of what occurred at the University of Lethbridge.

The comments here make me think that we very much need to implement the Chicago Principles at the universities in Alberta.”

Something very disturbing happened with this comment. When I go on to Shannon Phillips Facebook page I see my comment. I am left with the impression that others can read the comment and respond to it. But when others go to the page they do not see the comment. I do not even know whether Shannon Phillips can see it. I do not know the explanation for this, but it fits with a pattern of widespread censorship that is taking place on the internet.

I sent my comment by email to a few people, and one of them said to me that I should not have said “As an advocate for freedom of speech I defend the rights of you all to say these things.” This person said that there are limits to freedom of speech, one of them being defamation. I agree this. He went on to say that what Shannon Phillips said about Tony Hall was defamatory. Was it? Let’s consider this.

Phillips makes three claims about Hall’s teaching. First, she says that “He spread Holocaust denial.” This is just not true on several levels. Tony has said to me, on more than one occasion, and without my asking, that the subject of the Holocaust was never brought up in his classes. Thus, without evidence to the contrary, Phillips’ claim that he taught “Holocaust denial” is unsubstantiated.

What is true is that Tony Hall did post a video on the internet in which he called for “open debate” on the subject. Does such a call constitute “spreading Holocaust denial”? The answer depends on what is meant by “Holocaust denial,” which is a multivalent term. Some, like Deborah Lipstadt, classify those who call for debate on the subject “deniers” [See location 546 of the Kindle edition of Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust]. If you accept this strange interpretation then Phillips claim that Hall “spread Holocaust denial” is true, but completely misleading. The term is typically interpreted by the public as a refusal to acknowledge the historical reality of German-controlled World War II concentration camps in which a great number of Jewish people perished. Failure to acknowledge this reality is thought to be motivated by racism and hatred. On all counts this is not true of Hall. The point of “open debate” is to get more exactly at the truth, not to deny the reality of anything, and in Hall’s case it is not motivated by racism or hatred. So Phillips has propagated a false impression of Tony Hall which is severely damaging to his reputation.

Second, she says that Tony Hall claims that 9/11 was a “Zionist” job. This is true, though Hall does not say that it was done exclusively by Zionists. Unfortunately In our current cultural climate anyone who suggests that Zionists had some role in 9/11 risks doing damage to their reputation. Almost everyone dismisses the claim as a crazy conspiracy theory and makes no attempt to look at the evidence for or against it. Anyone who tries to counter this irrational response takes a courageous risk. Tony did, and I think he should be commended for doing so. All the same, I do not think that what Phillips said did any further damage to his reputation than had already been incurred by the risk he took.

Third, Phillips says that Hall says that the leader of the KKK had some good theories. The point of this remark is too vague to be assessed as true or false, but it does throw an extra bit of disparagement onto the two points already mentioned.

On balance, I am reluctant to admit it, but I fear that what my friend said about Shannon Phillips defaming Tony Hall is correct. She overstepped the limits of freedom of expression.

And what about you, Demetrios? Shannon Phillips says that you want “to protect anti-semitism and hate speech at our universities”. That’s false of course. Is it defamatory? I don’t know. Politics is a rough business. You are in a much better position to correct the mischaracterization in the public eye than is Tony.

Good luck with the initiative. It’s a minefield. But somebody needs to do it.

Sincerely,

Andrew Blair

Comment from Professor Viminitz:

“People do not generally go around killing each other. Therefore there’s no need for legislation outlawing it. No, Mr.Turk, that’s NOT how law works. Those however rare cases in which universities and colleges betray their mandate to protect academic freedom is precisely why the Chicago Principles are needed. Those rare cases, even if they’re EVENTUALLY repaired, injects the very chill the Chicago Principles are designed to thwart. The fact that the current lobby for academic freedom is being spearheaded by the right is utterly irrelevant. Back in the day – by which I mean the late 60’s during which I came to political consciousness – it was the left that was being silenced. That said, Andrew Blair is dead right to worry that a governmental (and therefore political) watchdog might be selective in its actions. So some kind of apolitical mechanism has to accompany the legislation. Let’s work on that. – Paul Viminitz, Philosophy, U of Lethbridge”

Professor Hall also made a comment in the American Herald Tribune that offers a few illustrations of how widespread the suppression of criticism of Israeli policies is. I have a slightly different interpretation from his of Shannon Phillips’ smackdown, which I explain beneath his comment, copied below:

Freedom or Repression of Speech at Alberta’s Universities? A Point of Contention Between the NDP and the UCP

Is former NDP Cabinet Minister, Shannon Phillips, attempting to revive her waning political career by initiating a fear mongering campaign? Ms. Phillips is targeting Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s plan to integrate the Chicago Principles on Free Speech into the operations of Alberta’s colleges and universities.

The University of Chicago put forward a statement in 2015 asserting that it is an essential duty of universities to foster debate even when some might find the certain arguments to be “offensive, unwise, immoral or wrongheaded.” Rather than trying to constrain speech the academic mission calls on its champions to celebrate ideas by debating them with enthusiasm and respect.

In an Aug. 9 video posted on her Facebook account, Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips tries to make a case against the Chicago Principles. Instead of embracing free speech, Ms. Phillips would apparently prefer to continue the Alberta NDP’s policy of trying to manage and control speech in Alberta’s institutions of higher learning. This NDP hostility to free speech and to academic freedom has been most clearly expressed in the political party’s shifting position on my case.

My suspension came in October of 2016 as an administrative response to a now-notorious Facebook scam mounted by B’nai Brith Canada and Joshua Goldberg. Goldberg’s extremely reprehensible “Kill All Jews” post is said to have appeared very briefly on my Facebook wall without my sanction or agreement. Goldberg is presently in a US federal penitentiary convicted of terrorist charges.

Ms. Phillips wants to confine the issues to my suspension at the U of L in October of 2016. Among the many issues she tries to ignore or downplay is the fact that the professional associations representing me locally and nationally defeated the U of L Board of Governors in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. The ruling came down in September of 2017. It indicated my suspension took place outside the terms of an administrative-faculty collective agreement. A judge ruled that my suspension was illegal.

It does not bode well for the future of the supposedly left-leaning NDP that one of its senior MLAs can be so flippantly dismissive about an administrative failure to live up to the terms of a collective agreement with a faculty association. Who does the Alberta NDP represent if it fails to uphold the rights of organized labour?

Is the NDP’s position on Israel-Palestinian relations illustrative of the party’s propensity to identify with wealth and power over the victims of injustice? The provincial and national branches of the NDP have disappointed many decent men and women who expect Canada to show some sort of balance in its international orientation to the Jewish state and the Palestinian people.

The former leader of the federal NDP, Tom Mulcair, was ruthlessly one-sided in his Middle East policies. Mulcair would not allow NDP MPs to criticize Israel. He prevented NDP members from seeking election to federal office if they manifested pro-Palestinian proclivities. Mulcair prevented Libby Davis, Morgan Wheeldon, Jerry Natanine and Paul Manly from running for public office. Paul Manley’s father, James, is a United Church clergyman who risked his life on a ship seeking to deliver in 2012 humanitarian aid to the Palestinian inhabitants of the blockaded open-air prison of Gaza.

In 2017 NDP federal leadership candidate, Niki Ashton, attempted to overcome Muclair’s reactionary legacy by emphasizing the need for the Canadian government to develop a more balanced position in the Middle East. Ashton’s role in Parliament as MP for a large Manitoba riding with a majority of Aboriginal peoples was probably a factor in her developing a wise sensibility to the dilemmas of indigenous Palestinians.

B’nai Brith Canada intervened in the NDP leadership campaign to depict Ms. Ashton as an anti-Semitic bigot engaged in the process of befriending terrorists. As this lobby was trying to turn NDP members against the pro-Palestinian candidate, B’nai Brith Canada was deeply involved concurrently in my case. It put extreme pressure on the Alberta Premier to counter the court’s decision to reinstate me to my professional responsibilities.

Premier Notley succumbed to the pressure. Seeking partisan political advantage she wrongfully intervened to undermine the juridical integrity of an internal investigation within the University.  The President of the U of L Faculty Association wrote to the Premier indicating she “may have biased the outcome of any such fair and objective process.” Shortly after Notley intervened to join in the attack on academic freedom, she was feted at a dinner hosted by B’nai Brith Canada.

The coalition of the lobby group, the U of L Board of Governors and the very top officials in the Alberta government was aimed at bringing about a preconceived outcome before a genuine process of arbitration of my academic work had even commenced.

Left-wing parties in many countries have been pressured to ignore the Israeli government’s violations of international law in its treatment of Palestinians. Those who insist on criticizing Israeli actions are often targeted professionally for defamation through the deployment of weaponized terms like “anti-Semitism,” “conspiracy theories,” “holocaust denial” and “hate speech.”

The Israel Lobby’s attack on the UK Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, a decent social democrat under vicious political attack, forms a telling illustration of the web of corruption that has ensnared Rachel Notley and Shannon Phillips. It is disturbing to witness the Tony Blairite propensities of the NDP survivors of Jason Kenney’s recent electoral sweep in Alberta.

In her video discussing the U of L free speech case, Shannon Phillips shows that she is deeply enmeshed in the deceptions and propaganda disseminated by B’nai Brith Canada. This deception began when B’nai Brith tried to pin on me the extremely offensive content of the Joshua Goldberg post.

An honest account of how this story has unfolded would mention that I retired on 20 October of 2018 in good standing as Emeritus Professor. I was not found guilty of anything. Shannon Phillips has conspicuously failed to do her homework in mounting her attack on free speech and on the protections for academic freedom in Alberta.

I agree with all of this, except for one point. As I see it, it is not true that Shannon Phillips has been downplaying the fact that the court ruled that Professor Hall was suspended in violation of the administrative-faculty agreement that was intended to protect academic freedom. In fact she plays it up in order to explain to the bullying crowd that the NDP could not have simply had Professor Hall dismissed, as they wished, because the court ruled against this.

It appears to me that many of Phillips’ followers on Facebook are engaged in the age-old practice of unifying around a scapegoat. They believe that Professor Hall is a hateful anti-semite, not because of their own firsthand evidence, or nuanced reasoning about what Professor Hall has actually said, but because a lot of other people have said he is. When they see everyone else piling on, they pile on too. Perhaps this makes some of them feel virtuous and good. It also helps to ensure that they are not seen as anti-semitic themselves. To justify their aggression against the scapegoat, they fervently adhere to their simplistic ill-founded belief.

Shannon Phillips has got swept up in this. I have no doubt that she sincerely thinks that she is doing the right thing, but I doubt that she is aware of the degree to which she is participating in a very ugly, but commonly repeated social pattern. Witch hunts are an example. So are anti-semitic pogroms. These are extreme examples, but the pattern is similar. It is probably to her short term political advantage to participate, though I am not so sure that it will work out well in the longer run. I feel very sorry that she is doing this. In so many ways I support both her spirit and her policies, but not this one.

To illustrate, here is one of the comments on her Facebook post:

Tony Hall was reinstated under your watch… Not only did you not sound the alarm …, but B’nai Brith Canada warned Notley and your government (the NDP) about passing legislation that brought faculty under the province’s labour-relations laws which your government ignored. To quote from the article in the Canadian Jewish News November 24, 2017…“Premier (Rachel) Notley and her government bear direct responsibility for placing a discredited conspiracy theorist back in a university classroom,” said Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada. “We repeatedly warned the government of the likely outcome of its actions, but they sadly chose to ignore our warnings and expose Alberta university students to anti-Semitism and discrimination instead.

This commenter displays no understanding of academic freedom at all. Is it okay for any lobby group to say that a professor is “discredited”, etc., and the ruling party has to snap to it, and have the professor dismissed?

In warding off these complaints Phillips several times refers to a press release put out by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which says

“We have also confirmed that Hall will not be teaching or interacting with students. He is continuing to be investigated by the university and his future is far from certain.”

It includes a quote from Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of CIJA.

“Those who peddle antisemitic conspiracies disqualify themselves from a place of higher learning. We have been in direct communication with the university and the Government of Alberta at the highest levels to convey our concerns. We know these officials share our disgust with Hall’s record of antisemitism, which is why we expect this investigation to end with his permanent removal from campus.”

To what “record of antisemitism” does he refer?

This press release gives every indication that the fix was in. The release was put out before the proper procedures were underway to give Professor Hall a fair hearing. It appears that the ruling party actually did snap to it, but did so behind a facade so as to appear not to violate the principle of academic freedom.

This underlines both my point, and that of Professor Viminitz. We need an apolitical mechanism to enforce legislation that protects academic freedom.

 

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