Reasonable hostility: Academic freedom & speech under threat #highered #edstudies #criticaled #bced #bcpoli #ubc #yteubc

by Stephen Petrina on February 11, 2014

No disrespect, but… Politic for politic, as faculty and student activism over the last decade was generated in response to administrative measures taken to devalue academic budget lines and increase debt loads, administrators formed policies that shored up their powers to police campus speech and launch investigations. Following an introduction of a Respectful Environment policy in 2008, in anticipation of an upcoming political protest on campus in March 2009, the President of UBC circulated a “Respectful Debate” memo warning students and faculty to “pay special attention to the rules that govern our conduct” for speech. Legislation of respect entangles or snares the left and right in the same finely meshed dragnet attenuating civil liberties. This also recalibrates a network of surveillance media and technologies, challenging nearly all protections in the workplace. Some self-identified centrists or voices of reason welcome the new measures, adopting roles of third persons while reporting to administrators that loose lips sink scholar-ships.

In Canada and the US, these new respectful workplace policies, which anticipate or respond to workplace legislation and court decisions, mean that academic freedom and charter or constitutional rights noticeably contract at the campus gates. Watching postsecondary institution by institution adopt similar respectful workplace policies, the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), issued a memorandum in late March 2009 advising vigilance: “the test of ‘disrespect’ identified in these policies is for the most part experiential and subjective – notions like ‘feelings of shame’ or ‘embarrassment’ crop up repeatedly.” He subsequently asserted, “a major problem in Canadian universities is not that too many people are asserting their academic freedom, but that too few are.”

Similar policies in the US are compounded by the Supreme Court’s 2006 Garcetti v. Ceballos opinion that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline,” reinforcing managerial discretion and prerogative. Although academic freedom remains a special concern of free speech rights and was deferred by the Court in Garcetti, legal analysts such as Harvey Gilmore concur that “Garcetti has now become the definitive statement on a public employer’s discretion in managing office operations, and that discretion includes controlling an employee’s speech made in the scope of the employee’s professional capacity.”

Following legislation in four other provinces, on 1 July 2012 new legislation in BC came into effect through an amendment of the mental disorder section of the Workers Compensation Act. The new amendment in Section 5.1 provides for potential compensation if the disorder

(i) is a reaction to one or more traumatic events arising out of and in the course of the worker’s employment, or
(ii) is predominantly caused by a significant work-related stressor, including bullying or harassment, or a cumulative series of significant work-related stressors, arising out of and in the course of the worker’s employment.

For legal preparation for this legislation now common across Canada, universities such as UBC folded a large scope of potential infractions into their respectful workplace policies. What stands as protection for disability or “mental disorder” and against “bullying or harassment” under the law is extended in higher education policy to common modes of academic speech—commentary and criticism—that might be articulated in the wrong tone.

Offices of Human Resources introducing or monitoring respectful workplace policies oversimplify speech by stressing, “it is not what you say but how you say it that counts.” Repeated in HR across higher education and curiously by some administrators, this folksy maxim come respectful workplace policy draws on centuries of etiquette texts. “Rather than seeing public talk occasions as needing politeness or civility, a better norm” Karen Tracy proposes, “is reasonable hostility.” She effectively hashes out parameters for democratic communicative practice and flips this “aphorism on its head, it is not merely how something is said, but what a person says that matters.”

Only certain types of face-attack are legitimate and desirable in local governance situations. ‘Reasonable hostility’ is the name for acts that are. Reasonable hostility involves person-directed attack; it is remarks that imply disrespectful, undesirable things about others. Targets of reasonable hostility will judge speakers uttering those remarks to be rude, disrespectful, unfair, and so on…. A speaker might be cognizant that his or her remarks may have this effect, but their purpose is to express outrage about a wrong.  The speaker sees self’s central aim as witnessing a truth or expressing righteous indignation.

Faculty and students are bookended by a reformalization of academic speech on one side and a normalization of administrative equivocation, deception included, on the other. Can voices of critique and voices of liberty speak together, with reasonable hostility, as a voice of truth? Can the left and right speak (together)?

Read More: Petrina, S. & Ross, E. W. (2014). Critical University Studies: Workplace, Milestones, Crossroads, Respect, TruthWorkplace, 23, 62-71.