Carleton, Khomeini, and free speech

University defends controversial campus conference

Photo by davehighbury on Flickr

This post first appeared on Michael Petrou’s The World Desk blog on Macleans.ca.

My article about a conference at Carleton University honouring Iran’s founding dictator Ayatollah Khomeini prompted a condemnatory letter from several prominent Iranian scholars to Carleton President Roseann O’Reilly Runte, as well as responsive missives from O’Reilly Runte and from John Osborne, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

I’ve reprinted the exchanges below. Tracking the dates and salutations, it looks possible that I’m missing one of the letters. If so, its absence here is unintentional. I have also deleted email addresses and phone numbers that appeared in the email address lines, and have added the full name of recipients where they were otherwise abbreviated. Everything else is posted here verbatim.

A good chunk of the debate centres on free speech. Osborne casts himself as a defender of the principle. “It is my duty as a scholar to vehemently oppose any attempts to restrict freedom of speech, and I shall do so until my dying breath,” he writes.

As it happens, I’m a free speech fundamentalist. If Carleton students want to hold a conference praising a murderous advocate of child rape, and if the university is content to host and promote the event, that’s their right. (Under Khomeini, Iran lowered the age when a girl could be “married” to nine; and the old man himself wrote that it was permissible to receive sexual pleasure from babies.)

My beef with Osborne is that I don’t fully believe him. Carleton University’s student association banned a pro-life student group, and I can’t find evidence of Osborne expending any breath — let alone his dying one — opposing restrictions placed on the right to freedom of speech of Carleton pro-life students. Carleton University spokesman Steven Reid said the university would intervene if a student group was holding an event that promoted hate. In other words, there is a line that, if crossed, would provoke an intervention from the university. One suspects Khomeini receives a pass that other tyrants and perverts would not.

My second concern revolves around the degree to which the Iranian Cultural Association of Carleton University genuinely reflects the will and aspirations of Iranian students at the university, as opposed to existing simply as a front for the propaganda efforts of the Iranian embassy. As I’ve outlined elsewhere, the student group is run by the Iranian cultural counsellor’s son, and its activities are funded by the embassy. Some Iranian students at Carleton feel intimidated and watched because of the embassy’s close association with the student group.

John Osborne says that a university is a place where all views may be expressed. He’s absolutely right. But when students are afraid to express their views at a Canadian university because of what might get reported back to Tehran, the university — in this case Carleton — has a big problem.

Here are the letters:

Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte

President and Vice Chancellor
Carleton University
503 Tory Building
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6

June 11, 2012

Dear President O’Reilly Runte

We write to you as a group of Iranian- Canadian academics to register our strong objection to Carleton University’s decision to host an event on June 2nd 2012, under the title, “The contemporary awakening and Imam Khomeini’s Thoughts.” Clearly, this “conference”, organized by a group of people associated with the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, does not have academic value and cannot provide an objective analysis of Khomeini’s thoughts and particularly their outcome.

You may be aware that by the fatwa Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the mass execution of several thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Through his “cultural revolution” following the 1979 revolution, all Iranian universities were closed down for two years and thousands of faculty and students expelled, and many of them jailed, executed or forced into exile. The outcome of the Ayatollah’s “thought” for academics in Iran today are forced retirement of the faculty, the expulsion or intimidation of students through a bizarre “star-system” and in many cases their imprisonment. The disciplines of Humanities and Social Sciences are reshaped through an archaic religious ideology. These are among Khomeini’s legacy and “thoughts”, not to mention his antiquated ideas about women’s rights within the family and society, ironically praised by one of the speakers. Promoting these thoughts, and celebrating this legacy through a conference, with participation of few speakers, all with long associations with the Islamic Republic, without the balancing presence of any known Iran experts with differing views is not something in which any reputable academic institution can take pride.

We understand that Carleton University has a long-standing relation with some educational institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and your Sprott MBA program in Qeshm Island is the only Canadian University degree program in the country. We support, and many of us are engaged in, international academic collaborations. However, we think reputable academic institutions have a moral obligation not to turn a blind eye on atrocities committed against their colleagues in other countries. Providing forum to individuals, who under the pretext of academic freedom, propagate the ideas and values of a regime that is known for its violation of all standards of academic freedom and rights, is far from promoting academic debates.

Sincerely,

Payam Akhavan, Faculty of Law, McGill University

Amir Hassanpour, ret, University of Toronto

Ramin Jahanbegloo, Center for Ethics, University of Toronto

Haideh Moghissi, Equity Studies, Trudeau Fellow, York University

Shahrzad Mojab, OISE, University of Toronto

Mo Mojahedi, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Toronto

Omid Peyrow-Shabani, Philosophy, University of Guelph

Saeed Rahnema, Political Science and Public Policy, York University

Peyman Vahabzadeh, Sociology, University of Victoria,

Farrokh Zandi, Schulich Business School, York University

CC:

OCUFA, Ontario Colleges and Universities Faculty Association

CUASA, Carleton University Academic Staff Association

Jun 14, 2012 at 1:09 PM

Dear Mr Shahrooz,

Thank you and your colleagues for your recent letter. Carleton University did not sponosor or act as host to the event you mention.

Sincerely yours,

Roseann O’Reilly Runte

President and Vice-Chancellor

c.c. John Osborne, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Carleton University

From: Kaveh Shahrooz

Sent: June 14, 2012 2:08 PM
To: Presidents Office
Cc: John Osborne
Subject: Re: Letter of Iranian-Canadian academics to the President of Carleton U

Dr. O’Reilly Runte,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to our collective letter. It is unfortunate, however, that your response did not address the core issue that we had raised.

Nowhere in the letter did we assert that Carleton had sponsored the event. We recognize clearly that the conference did not have the imprimatur of the University. Your reference to Carleton’s non-sponsorship is thus, regrettably, a red herring.

The central message of our letter was that Carleton University had been negligent in permitting its campus and its information distribution tools (I note that the event had been listed on a Carleton events page) to be used for a celebration of a man responsible for mass murder, rape, torture, and gender and religious apartheid. Moreover, Carleton’s negligence gave an opportunity to known anti-Semites to appear on your campus to broadcast their vile and hateful messages.

Furthermore, because Carleton officials have been quoted in the press as defending the event on “free academic inquiry” grounds, I also wish to reiterate a point we had made in the letter: the issue with the conference is not one of free speech or academic freedom. We understand and respect that universities should be places of free academic debate. However, In the absence of speakers who could expose Mr. Khomeini’s human rights record, the June 2nd event was of no academic value.

I look forward to receiving another response from you concerning the issue I have explained above.

Regards,
Kaveh Shahrooz

From: John Osborne

Date: Thu, Jun 14, 2012 at 2:38 PM
Subject: RE: Letter of Iranian-Canadian academics to the President of Carleton U
To: Kaveh Shahrooz, Presidents Office

Dear Mr. Shahrooz,

I am not certain why I have been copied on this exchange, as it has nothing to do with my specific Faculty, but since I have been copied I shall take the liberty of making some comment. I wade into this discussion with enormous trepidation, but the general principle is one about which I feel very strongly. A university, by definition, is a place where all views may be expressed, within the limits of the law of the land. We do not “vet” speakers, nor indeed events, proposed by accredited faculty or student groups. My understanding is that the sponsoring student group is an official organization, accredited by the Carleton University Student Association. To whom authority for the accreditation of student clubs has been delegated. As such they have the right to book campus space, usually for a fee, for their events. There is no process in place for “approving” who comes to speak, nor indeed the nature of the event. To do so would not only be morally wrong, but require resources that we simply don’t have. If laws are broken, that is obviously different, and we are certainly not above the law. But I don’t think any law has been broken, and I am not aware of any police investigation that would suggest otherwise.

Nor is there a requirement that any particular event need be “balanced”. Thus we don’t insist that the Conservative Party club invite speakers who oppose the government in addition to those who support it. It is understood that many clubs and societies will have a particular point of view, and that their roster of speakers will reflect that. If one group doesn’t like the speakers proposed by another group, they are welcome to initiate their own events and invite their own speakers. The university administration can’t begin to monitor and police this process, as then we would do nothing else.

Some may find it threatening or unpleasant to hear certain views, but that is what a university is for: to challenge the status quo, and to challenge, and at times even offend, those who hear talks on our campus. We provide a forum, a soapbox, for many voices. That is what education is about. You cannot learn by listening only to those with whom you agree.

We may well agree that this event had no academic value. But that is only our opinion, and we are human, and hence potentially fallible. What we must also recognize, however, is that we are not the ones to make this decision in some arbitrary way. Clearly it had value to those who organized it, and that is, in itself, sufficient.

I must say it worries me when individuals or groups attempt to pressure our university president into implementing censorship. That is not what I expect in a free and democratic society. Democracy includes the possibility – in this instance on the part of an Iranian student group at Carleton – to discuss issues that some will find challenging, and even to take viewpoints that many will oppose with passion. But we oppose with debate, and with the truth, not by shutting down discussion. To censor simply drives the discussion underground, and gives legitimacy to views that, once expressed, are clearly unsupportable. Better to allow them a voice, so that they can be rebutted. The university would indeed have been negligent if it has intervened to somehow prohibit this event from happening on campus. Not only that, but it would have betrayed its fundamental principle of free inquiry.

I believe you owe Dr. Runte an apology.

Sincerely,

John Osborne

From: Banai, Hussein

Sent: Monday, June 18, 2012 10:24 AM
To: John Osborne, Kaveh Shahrooz

Cc: President’s Office

Subject: RE: Letter of Iranian-Canadian academics to the President of Carleton U

Dear Dr. Osborne,

Thank you for the prompt reply regarding our letter sent to you by Mr. Kaveh Shahrooz on June 14th. Given the accusatory tone and substance of your response, however, we can only – and regretfully – conclude that you may have only partially read our letter. Many of the signatories of the letter have devoted their lives – often at great risk to them and to their families and friends – to the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran and Canada, and some (myself included) are even scholars of democratic theory and practice at major academic institutions in Canada and the United States. So while we share your concerns about freedom of expression and open debate on university campuses, the manner in which you dismiss our legitimate right to protest the event (not to censor it, as you unfairly allege) suggests to us a rather abstract and tenuous commitment on your part to core democratic principles and values.

Indeed, one of the central missions of the university is to encourage open debate and exchange of opinions, however disagreeable they may be. But that is not, as you suggest in your response, ‘what education is all about’. The modern university is also dedicated to, as the academic mission statement of Carleton University itself states, ‘the advancement of learning’; what distinguishes a university lecture hall from any street-corner ‘soapbox’ is the intellectual judgment exercised by university administrators and faculty on what will be most conducive to the advancement of learning and perhaps even reflective understanding. By allowing itself to become a soapbox for the uncritical promotion and approval of the views and actions of the founder of the Islamic regime in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Carleton University has in our estimation fallen short of the ideals set out in its academic mission statement.

The aim of our previous letter was to challenge this complacency by presenting a counter-narrative and offering the consultation of the Iranian-Canadian community for future exchanges. It is regrettable that such a reasonable objection on our part should be met with such condescension and presumptuousness; however, recognizing your democratic right to state your views as you did we demand neither an apology nor a retraction.

Respectfully yours,

Hussein Banai (on behalf of the undersigned)
Assistant Professor, Diplomacy of World Affairs, Occidental College
Visiting Professor, Political Science, Brown University
Research Affiliate, Center for International Studies, MIT

From: John Osborne

Date: Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 12:10 PM
Subject: RE: Letter of Iranian-Canadian academics to the President of Carleton U
To: Banai, Hussein
Cc: Presidents Office

Dear Professor Banai,

With respect, your letter is disingenuous. You claim not to support censorship, but that is precisely what the original letter suggested that Carleton should have done, namely to disallow this event from taking place on our campus. In a democracy we do not pre-judge speakers or events, nor do we disallow accredited groups from inviting whom they please. The only form of censorship or control that is tolerable is that provided by the rule of law. That is precisely why we have a rule of law, namely to remove these decisions from the caprices of individuals.

I assure that I have read the letter in its entirety. I take no issue with the fact that many of the signatories have courageously defended democracy and human rights, and some may well have suffered in this regard. As a long-time member of Amnesty International I have a good knowledge of human rights abuses in Iran, and have often written on that matter. But please understand that this is not the point. You are asking this university to respond to repression by undertaking repression. In my view, that simply compounds the injustice, and serves to violate the basic principles that we all hold dear.

I fully support your right to protest, but not your request that the university abrogate its principles by banning legal events of any kind. And I assure you that there is nothing presumptuous or condescending in my earlier message. To the contrary, I perceive attempts such as this as an explicit threat to the role of universities, a threat that I take very seriously. I am reminded of the McCarthy era in the United States in the 1950s, when certain subjects became impossible to discuss openly through the creation of an atmosphere of hostility and fear. It is my duty as a scholar to vehemently oppose any attempts to restrict freedom of speech, and I shall do so until my dying breath.

Sincerely,

John Osborne

Carleton, Khomeini, and free speech

  1. Mr Osborne is quite right: this campaign of dæmonising the Iranian state is reminiscent of McCarthyism. It also dovetails ever so coïncidentally with the current imperialist designs against Iran.

    If we are to ban events pertaining to states guilty of repression, political imprisonment, religious fanaticism, execution, and torture, our first target should be not Iran but the US. Do the signatories of this letter to Carleton, some of whom regularly beat the war drums against Iran in the Canadian media, propose to halt the many conferences that highlight the US (and its Canadian lackey)? Are they consistent and principled or arbitrary and tendentious?

    Let the conference continue as scheduled. Carleton deserves praise for hosting it.

    _Maclean’s_, however, disgraces itself by casually denigrating Khomeini with words such as «dictator», «tyrants», and «perverts». I don’t recall seeing such epithets applied to Netanyahu when he was in Ottawa soliciting the Canadian state’s support for a criminal Zionist military attack on Iran. Is there a principled basis for this striking difference in treatment, or is _Maclean’s_ just dutifully echoing Ottawa’s official line?

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