Freedom and Loathing in Lethbridge

A university dispute over free speech tests the limits of tenure

By Tadzio Richards

On a fall afternoon in 2016, Michael Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Lethbridge, sat in his office and pondered, once again, what to do about Anthony Hall. Hall is a tenured professor of globalization studies at the U of L. Just a day earlier—citing what a judge in a subsequent court case would gently refer to as “concerns about contraventions of human rights laws by alleged anti-Semitic comments” made by Hall online and elsewhere—Mahon had sent Hall a letter “requesting that you attend and meet with me at 2:15 o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, October 4… to explain why a suspension without pay of your duties and privileges as an academic staff at the University of Lethbridge is not in order.” Instead of coming to the meeting, Hall consulted a lawyer.

So now Mahon wrote another letter. “You are hereby immediately suspended without pay from all duties and privileges associated with teaching, research and community service,” he informed Hall. “The suspension is being implemented as a precautionary, not disciplinary, measure, and will remain in effect until the University has concluded its review of this matter.” Mahon signed his name.

The fallout was quick. Hall responded on October 5 with a video recorded in the U of L faculty lounge and uploaded to YouTube that same day. “I have to leave the campus where I’ve been working for 26 years,” he said, at the outset of a nearly six-minute monologue in which he cited his two scholarly books, said the Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith has “essentially taken control of my university’s administration,” and plugged his co-presented online talk show, False Flag Weekly News. “There’s been no due process,” he said. “The institution of tenure… has apparently just disappeared.”

Are there limits to academic freedom? Can a university legitimately discipline a professor for social media remarks?

The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) agreed with Hall’s concerns about due process—the right to fair and equal treatment under the law—and tenure. As the Canadian Encyclopedia defines it, tenure is a permanent post-secondary appointment that “enables the holder to exercise free but responsible criticism of his institution and all aspects of society without fear of dismissal.” The ongoing appointment of a professor granted tenure “may be terminated only through resignation, retirement or dismissal for good reasons as established by a proper hearing.”

Writing in defence of Hall, on October 10, ULFA president Andrea Amelinckx sent a statement to CBC, the Calgary Herald and other media. “The president’s action violates provincial law,” she wrote, “and contravenes the university’s contract with its faculty, which provides a process for investigating complaints, such as those alleged against professor Hall, in a fair, speedy and thorough fashion.”

The public criticism, as Mahon acknowledged in an open letter to the university community on October 13, drew “uncomfortable attention to our university.” Built in a coulee above the Oldman River, the publicly funded University of Lethbridge is visually striking and—increasingly—academically respected. Since 2013 Maclean’s has ranked the U of L in the top four best primarily undergraduate universities in Canada. This rise happened under Mahon’s watch. In late 2016 Mahon was a year into his second five-year term as president.

Mahon defended Hall’s suspension, asserting that Alberta’s Post-Secondary Learning Act allowed a university president the “discretion” to suspend academic staff. “The decision to suspend Dr. Hall was not made easily or quickly,” he wrote. “This action is not focused on Dr. Hall’s published scholarship [nor] driven by complaints of students or the demands of external advocacy groups. It is focused on his YouTube-based videos and comments in social media that have been characterized as being anti-Semitic, supportive of Holocaust denial and engagement in conspiracy theories.”

Despite the vigorous rhetoric, the definition of academic freedom in Canada is disputed.

By 2017 the faculty association—noting that Hall remained suspended even though his pay had by now been restored—rejected Mahon’s reasoning. In a letter to its membership on January 20, 2017, the ULFA’s executive committee said that the collective bargaining agreement between the administration and faculty outlined in the University of Lethbridge Faculty Handbook “explicitly names ‘the right to participate in public life’ as protected activity alongside research, teaching and service activity. The notion that Dr. Hall’s work in social media, which he himself consistently characterizes as part of his research and community activities, can be unilaterally determined by president Mahon to be outside of his university duties… is both absurd and a fundamental threat to the institution of tenure.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which represents 70,000 academic professionals at 123 universities and colleges, also weighed in, passing a resolution to “condemn the actions of the University of Lethbridge administration in suspending Professor Tony Hall without due process.”

Eventually Premier Rachel Notley was drawn in to comment. The premier got involved because in May 2017 the NDP government brought in legislation that made university collective bargaining agreements subject to the Labour Relations Code, meaning that when parties can’t agree on an arbitrator the provincial government appoints one. The government intervened in court in support of the faculty association’s interpretation of the new law.

The legal wrangle focused on whether the suspension was disciplinary as opposed to precautionary. If so, then an investigation process, as outlined in the Faculty Handbook, had to be followed and the president had made a mistake in suspending Hall without a hearing. These legal issues, as Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice G.H. Poelman put it in a September 15, 2017, judgment that led to the appointment of an arbitrator between the parties, were “unrelated to the merits of the University’s concerns about Professor Hall’s activities.”

After arbitration, Hall was reinstated as a professor on November 23, 2017, subject to an investigation. President Mahon declined to speak publicly about the issue after Hall’s reinstatement. But others weighed in. After receiving multiple emails protesting the government’s intervention, Notley responded with a mass email. “The views Anthony Hall holds are repulsive, offensive and not reflective of Alberta,” wrote the premier. “While it’s true that the Government of Alberta did intervene in a legal proceeding, our role was only to ensure that the Labour Code and the letter of the law were upheld. This action in no way amounts to a defence of Mr. Hall, nor of his beliefs. We absolutely do not believe he should be teaching students… His future at the university is not guaranteed or protected beyond the due process afforded by his collective agreement.”

Notley’s email roused ULFA president Amelinckx to respond, in another open letter, that the premier—in commenting on an active labour file—had interfered in Hall’s right to due process. “Having the premier draw conclusions about the acceptability of professor Hall’s academic work prior to any decision rendered by an expert panel of qualified academics has the potential to undermine this very process we have fought to achieve,” she wrote, on January 15, 2018. “We believe it is a dangerous precedent… for elected officials to intervene so directly in a complex labour matter such as this one.”

For the investigation of Hall’s “activities,” the ULFA and the U of L board of governors agreed to a committee of three academics from Alberta universities. According to the Faculty Handbook, either the complaints will be thrown out, Hall will be suspended “with or without pay” for up to three months, or he will be “dismissed for cause.” Hall’s case raises concerns far beyond the University of Lethbridge. Are there limits to academic freedom? Can a university legitimately discipline a professor for social media remarks?

Academic freedom is at the core of a university’s mission and purpose. As defined in the U of L’s Faculty Handbook: “Academic freedom is generally understood as the right to teach, engage in scholarly activity, and perform service without interference and without jeopardizing employment. This freedom… entails the right to participate in public life, to criticize university or other administrations, to champion unpopular positions, to engage in frank discussion of controversial matters, and to raise questions and challenges which may be viewed as counter to the beliefs of society.”

Canadian university presidents are increasingly called on to defend such freedom. On April 24, 2018, after donors and faculty angrily protested the University of Alberta’s decision to grant David Suzuki an honorary degree, U of A president David Turpin wrote: “The university must give people the space and support they need to think independently without fear of external control or reprisal.”

Similarly, when student protesters tried to shut down a speech by anti gender-neutral pronoun crusader Jordan Peterson at Queen’s University in early 2018, Queen’s principal and vice-chancellor Daniel Woolf wrote: “Hate speech aside, failing to explore or confront ideas with which we disagree through disciplined and respectful dialogue, debate and argument, does society a disservice, weakens our intellectual integrity and threatens the very core of what… any university should be about. What is at issue is nothing less than our commitment to academic freedom.”

But despite the vigorous rhetoric, the definition of academic freedom in Canada is disputed. The disagreement is between faculty and administration. CAUT and Universities Canada (UC), a national organization “providing university presidents with a unified voice,” differ in their official statements. UC largely agrees with the CAUT’s open-ended definition, including “the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom to teach and discuss.” But UC—unlike CAUT—includes a section on the “Responsibilities of Academic Freedom,” which defines academic freedom as “constrained by the professional standards of the relevant discipline and the responsibility of the institution to organize its academic mission.” This focus on “responsibilities,” says Peter MacKinnon, president emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan, is so divergent that the UC and CAUT statements show “little potential for their reconciliation in the interests of a common university voice on a subject as important as academic freedom.”

As a condition of membership, UC members are expected to affirm the UC statement. Paul Axelrod, former dean of education at York University, argues that, in practice, “this means that professors are not free to teach anything they want. Courses must be vetted and approved by departmental committees composed of one’s colleagues, and to get one’s course on the books a professor may have to alter that content. Consider as well that faculty cannot publish anything and everything they research and write. They are subject to peer review, and their voices could well be muted by assessors and journal editors who, theoretically, are the gatekeepers of scholarly standards.”

Unlike citizens “on street corners or blogs,” scholars do not have a licence “to lie, propagandize or speak in habitually ill-informed ways,” writes Axelrod. “Academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the same thing.”

But, as the Anthony Hall case shows—particularly when it comes to “work in social media,” as the ULFA put it—the line can blur. President Michael Mahon is currently chair of the UC board. Intended or not, Mahon’s attempt to suspend Hall for “his YouTube-based videos and comments in social media” illuminates the lack of clarity dividing the parties in the dispute.

“Our university is committed to academic freedom,” Mahon stated in an interview with the Lethbridge Herald in January 2018. “But academic freedom is also not just an uninterpretable concept. It has to be supported within the concept of the broader parameters of society.”

Among those Canadian “broader parameters,” as Axelrod noted in a November 2017 piece in The Conversation, are societal prohibitions on demeaning speech and behaviour, including sexism and racism. Hate speech is another. “Speech that promotes ‘genocide’ and ‘incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace’ is illegal, on and off university campuses,” he wrote. But, while noting that, as an example, “neo-fascists who speak in code, avoiding overt hate-mongering, could be exposed and denounced by critics,” Axelrod cautioned: “If their words break no law, forcefully silencing them sets a perilous precedent that could be used to curtail vexatious presentations by those with different political views.”

The Hall case lies in this kind of grey zone.

Anthony James Hall, born in 1951 in Toronto, got a Ph.D. in history from the University of Toronto in 1984 and joined the U of L in 1990 as an associate professor of Native American studies. He was granted the protection and job security of tenure at the U of L, he says, “in the early 1990s.” In 2003 he published The American Empire and the Fourth World, a 736-page book that argued “the so-called War on Terror has deep roots in US history” and offered “an array of alternatives” to “the American empire of private property.” Naomi Klein praised it and in 2004 the book won the Wilfred Eggleston Award for best work of non-fiction by an Alberta author. A longer companion volume, Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization and Capitalism, was published in 2010.

Hall was promoted to full professor of globalization studies in 2008. At a senior professor’s pay tier, his annual salary by 2015 had reached over $150,000 plus some $25,000 in other compensation. In YouTube videos, Hall has said that 2008 was also when he “got very interested in studying 9/11 and saw, without a shadow of a doubt, that the facts that were presented us, the so-called facts, are not true. That 9/11 was a concocted event.” After 2008 Hall spoke about 9/11 both off-campus and in his U of L classes. In a public speech in Lethbridge he said the World Trade Centre buildings were destroyed, at least in part, by a “controlled demolition,” and that the “objective”—by US and Israeli neo-conservatives—“was to create a licence, an opening to conduct warfare” in the Middle East. When reached by phone, on May 25, 2018, Hall said: “There is no consensus on who did what on 9/11… I think this is something we need to deal with at the academy, at the university.”

Among his media endeavours, Hall was a regular commentator on Press TV, Iran’s state-owned network. While critics allege the network regularly airs anti-semitic stories and Iranian government propaganda, Hall has said his appearances there “lie well within the mandate of the kind of community service and public education that is, or at least should be, part of the work of a senior professor.”

In 2015 Hall joined False Flag Weekly News, broadcast live on YouTube, as a co-host with Kevin Barrett, a former US professor who labelled 9/11 “an inside job.” Hall also wrote articles defending Arthur Topham—owner of a press that published Hall’s essays in the 1990s—after Topham was convicted of a hate crime in British Columbia in 2015 for “online statements that wilfully promoted hatred against Jewish people.”

When contacted last May, Hall defended his online presence. “The nature of human communications and human interaction has been radically transformed by the internet. This is a new dimension to life in the academy,” he said. “The question is, How are we at the university going to deal with the fact that our students watch social media, that social media has a big impact? Do we just simply say ‘No, we’re purer than that, we’re more prestigious than that, we shouldn’t soil ourselves with, essentially, going into the public square’?”

“Of course, if you’re going to do one take and turn the machine on and have a discussion, are you going to say everything as perfectly as you might have?” he said, in reference to live-streamed shows. “Is it going to be the same as writing an article where you can revise and revise and get some feedback and then revise again? You know… you say what you say and that’s it.”

Unlike bloggers or people on street corners, scholars don’t have a licence to “lie, propagandize or speak in habitually ill-informed ways.”

On August 26, 2016, a Facebook “friend”—whom Hall knows from Lethbridge—posted an image that denied the Holocaust and said “Kill All Jews Now!” to Hall’s Facebook wall. Hall said he only learned of the image after Facebook took it down. He also claims his acquaintance was hacked, and that the offensive material was falsely communicated to Premier Notley as if Hall had actually said the words. His initial suspension from the university, he said on the phone, is “inexplicable” without this “planted Facebook post.”

Hall called the image “repulsive.” In a timeline of events posted online, Hall wrote, referring to himself in the third person: “The item that does reflect Prof. Hall’s views is the video where he calls for ‘open debate’ on the Holocaust and every other subject, but especially those most vital to the formulation of public policy.”

That video—“Why do you support open debate on the Holocaust?”—is three minutes 30 seconds long and features Hall along with Alfred and Monika Schaefer, siblings who grew up in Alberta. It was posted to YouTube on July 8, 2016, by the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH), a group also responsible for putting up posters at the University of Calgary in 2017 asking: “Did the ‘6 million’ really die?”

Before making the video, Monika Schaefer was a three-time candidate for the Green Party of Canada in Jasper. Hall visited her “from time to time.” In 2016 the two were in Germany together and visited Monika’s older brother, Alfred, a videographer who can be heard on numerous US and European anti-Semitic online talk shows discussing topics such as “the ongoing genocide of the white race.” In the CODOH video, filmed by Alfred, Hall argued for “open debate on all subjects” and also said: “We’re living in a time of huge hate speech, hate speech directed towards Germans collectively, generically, with no real ability to consider Germany’s place in the world outside of this particular way that National Socialism has been interpreted.”

In Germany Alfred also filmed Monika for another video—“Sorry, Mom, I Was Wrong About the Holocaust”—in which Monika said the Holocaust is “the most pernicious and persistent lie in all of history” and “there were no gas chambers” in Nazi concentration camps. It was posted to YouTube in June 2016. Monika was arrested a year and a half later in Germany, where Holocaust denial is against the law. She remained in custody until she and Alfred were put on trial together in Munich in July 2018—charged with “incitement to hatred.”

In Canada, well before her arrest, the Green Party terminated Schaefer’s membership. On July 22, 2016, Monika appeared on False Flag Weekly News with Hall and Barrett. Hall was incensed about Monika’s expulsion and said Green Party leader Elizabeth May is the “chief cop for the Zionist police force in Canada.” Hall then said that learning the “reality” behind “the myth of 9/11” can lead one to perceive other conspiracies.

“Alfred and Monika are quite typical, as I am myself,” said Hall, “in a trajectory of looking at, well, if Israel could do 9/11, what about this other big religious fable concerning what is called the Holocaust?” As he spoke in the video, his voice rose. “Sixty million people died in World War Two. That’s a ‘Holocaust,’ ” said Hall. “Some of those people were Jewish. That has to be lamented. All the people who died in World War Two should be acknowledged. And a large number, many millions, were Germans—murdered genocidally after 1945 in the ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe. In the camps… these US camps where people were dying.” He leaned in toward the camera. “Where’s the monuments for these dead? Where are the monuments for a Native American Holocaust? Where’s the monuments for the Palestinian Holocaust happening right now?”

He was nearly shouting now. “Where are the shrunken heads? The lampshades made out of Jewish skin? Thank you, Monika Schaefer, for opening up this issue… Thank you for making ‘Sorry, Mom, I Was Wrong About the Holocaust.’”

On October 3, 2016—the same day U of  L president Mahon wrote Hall a letter to request a meeting—the CBC’s David Gray interviewed Hall on the Calgary Eyeopener. Gray asked Hall to confirm statements he had made on False Flag Weekly News. Hall accused Gray of “acting like
an inquisitor.”

“Do you teach your ideas to the students at the University of Lethbridge?” asked Gray.

“Well, what choice would I have, David? Should I teach somebody else’s ideas?”

The interview was antagonistic. But Hall got in a last word: “We can’t just allow this to be put in a simple framework of good or bad, right or wrong,” he said. “The issue front and centre here right now is academic freedom at the University of Lethbridge and the institution of tenure.”

Tadzio Richards is a two-time National Magazine Award winner and an associate editor at Alberta Views.

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