Suing UofL over cancelled event

Widdowson et al v. University of Lethbridge

Suing UofL over cancelled event

Widdowson et al v. University of Lethbridge

A court action was filed against the University of Lethbridge (UofL) on July 26, 2023, on behalf of Dr. Frances Widdowson, UofL professor Dr. Paul Viminitz, and UofL student Jonah Pickle. The three applicants challenge the UofL decision to cancel an event on February 1, 2023, where Dr. Widdowson was slated to speak on the topic of “How Woke-ism Threatens Academic Freedom,“ as violating their Charter-protected freedoms of expression and assembly.

Dr. Widdowson had been a tenured professor at Mount Royal University (MRU) in the department of economics, justice, and policy studies until she was fired in late 2021. Dr. Widdowson has spent much of her academic career focused on public policy in relation to indigenous people, including the causes of massive socioeconomic disparities between indigenous and other Canadians. Her extensive scholarly research has led her to what some deem heterodox or “politically incorrect” conclusions which do not conform with “woke” ideas. Dr. Widdowson has suggested that “identity politics” have prevented people from discussing ideas at the university.

In November 2022, Dr. Paul Viminitz, a UofL philosophy professor since 1997, invited Dr. Widdowson to speak to students, faculty, and members of the public at UofL on the topic of how woke ideology is hostile to free speech, open inquiry, and dissent, which are essential components and conditions of universities. Dr. Viminitz (whose work is available at paulosophicalvimplications.org) and Dr. Widdowson share an interest in academic freedom and a desire to see more public dialogue and debate. The UofL approved the booking for Dr. Widdowson to speak.

The purpose of the event scheduled for February 1, 2023, was for interested parties to assemble and engage in social and democratic discourse. There would be a 40-minute presentation by Dr. Widdowson followed by a 40-minute question-and-answer session. The objective seemed in line with the motto of UofL, Fiat Lux (“Let There be Light”). On its website and in numerous policy documents, the UofL boasts how the institution provides a liberal education, preparing students “to think critically and creatively, communicate clearly, solve complex problems, and contribute fully to society.”

On January 25, 2023, however, a significant backlash to the event developed, including calls for the UofL to cancel the event by signatories to two petitions. Senior officials in the UofL’s Department of Indigenous Studies echoed this call, as did various members of UofL’s faculty.

UofL President Mike Mahon initially resisted the public pressure to cancel the event, but on January 30, 2023, capitulated. According to the action, the cancellation was on the following grounds:

  1. “assertions that seek to minimize the significant and detrimental impact of Canada’s residential school system are harmful”;
  2. cancellation was for the “safety” of the “diverse community”, although the UofL was almost certainly referring to ideological safety from opposing viewpoints, which is contrary to the purpose and existence of a post-secondary education;
  3. harm associated with the talk was an impediment to “meaningful reconciliation” pursuant to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; and
  4. delegation of decision-making, ostensibly, to “indigenous people”.

Despite the cancellation, Dr. Widdowson chose to attend the UofL on February 1 and speak in the UofL Atrium. A large, noisy, and rowdy counter-protest was planned and carried out out and interfered in Dr. Widdowson’s ability to be heard. Dr. Widdowson describes the crowd as “an enormous mob of protestors, which I understand to have been several hundreds.” After moving to an adjacent area to continue the lecture with those who wished to hear, she continued to be drowned out by shouting, drumming, and chanting. The talk was eventually moved online to Zoom that evening.

“My experience at the University of Lethbridge is a textbook case of how ‘woke-ism’ is threatening academic freedom and freedom of expression on university campuses,” said Dr. Widdowson. “Instead of encouraging faculty and students to engage with my ideas in order to reach a better understanding of totalitarian identity politics’ impact on the academy, the University of Lethbridge created an ‘unsafe space’ for critical thinking and open inquiry.  This means that the development of knowledge and theoretical understanding is being compromised at this academic institution.”

Jonah Pickle is a neuroscience student and an Arts & Science representative on UofL’s Student’s Union. He had made the decision to study at UofL, in-part, because it advertised that it would provide him with a “liberal education” including free inquiry and viewpoint diversity. He was told this “liberal education” is what set the institution apart from others in Alberta. In his experience, however, “campus life is one more of woke political indoctrination and conformism than intellectual diversity. Opposing or even questioning prevailing woke dogmas on campus is highly alienating. Students even learn, in mandatory political training, that doubting or opposing woke dogma is ignorance which training can fix.”

“It’s unfortunate that Canadian universities have reached the point where this action is necessary, however I’m hopeful that this step will begin moving us in the right direction,” said Pickle. “To advance our understanding of truth, it is vital to challenge accepted ideas and engage in debates over the interpretation of evidence. Sadly, the administration’s decision to concede to activists deprived students of the opportunity to partake in this essential process. By calling for this cancellation, an alarming number of our professors and administrators revealed to us that they’ve forgotten not only the value, but the necessity of the principles our university was founded upon. When our right to freedom of expression clashes with the risk of offending someone on campus, we must always prioritize freedom of expression, for a right that can be limited by the feelings of others is no longer a right.”

“When the UofL claims to be protecting the ‘safety’ of its ‘diverse community’, the UofL in fact wants to keep students ‘safe’ from hearing anything the UofL might disagree with. This is completely contrary to why UofL exists in the first place,” stated John Carpay, President of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

As far as the applicants know at time of writing, the UofL has not disciplined, censured, criticized, or otherwise dealt with the conduct (i.e., name-calling, potentially defamatory allegations, and disruptive actions, all expressly contrary to this University’s own mission, vision, and policies) of UofL students and faculty.

“In a liberal democracy, it is essential that diverse voices and viewpoints be free to gather to share ideas, to seek truth, and to discuss policy,” says lawyer Glenn Blackett. “This is perhaps most essential on a post-secondary campus, which fails to serve its function without open inquiry and, as Dr. Widdowson says, rational disputation.”

“The cancellation of an open event hosted and led by accomplished, engaging academics like Dr. Widdowson and Dr. Viminitz demonstrates the sorry state of university education in Canada. Increasingly, universities are in the business of interfering with the search for knowledge, on the premise that the truth is already known and that dissenting voices are somehow dangerous. It is, in other words, dogma, which is the opposite of science. If we can’t save our universities, there’s no telling what scientific, social, and economic progress we’re denying future Canadians.”

The court action seeks a declaration that UofL breached the applicants’ freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly guaranteed under the Charter, as well as an injunction requiring the UofL to permit the event to proceed on campus.

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