Bill C-51: Anti-terrorism legislation and academic freedom

People in action to defeat Bill C-51

CAUT members demonstrate against Bill C-51 on March 14

CAUT members demonstrate against Bill C-51 on March 14

Renewal Update (April 8) – The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has published an analysis opposing the Harper government’s new anti-terror legislation and highlighting the dangers it poses to academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus.

The CAUT, which represents 68,000 teachers, librarians, researchers and other academic professionals notes that Bill C-51 “would establish criminal offences that infringe upon the right to free expression.”

“While much of the focus of the debate has rightly centred on the infringements on civil liberties generally, there are also specific concerns about the impact of the legislation on academic freedom and free speech on university and college campuses,” the analysis points out.

“Academic freedom includes the right to teach, research, publish, and express one’s opinions free from political and institutional censorship. Academic freedom allows universities and colleges to serve the common good of society through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge and understanding, and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students.”

The CAUT raises specific concerns with three aspects of Bill C-51: the expanded information sharing powers in Part One, the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, the amendments to the Criminal Code in Part Three of the bill which create a new criminal offence for “advocating or promoting commission of terrorism offences in general,” and the expanded powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in Part Four.

The new offence for “advocating or promoting” terrorism offences “is broader than similar types of offences already in the Criminal Code,” they point out. “Academics could easily run afoul of this offence.”

“For instance, the crime of promoting of hate propaganda requires willful promotion (as compared with the new standard in C-51, which is being reckless that someone might commit an offence) of hate propaganda (which is a defined and specific concept, unlike terrorism in general). In addition, terrorism offences are much broader than actual terrorism: they include financing, complicity, incitement, and conspiracies directed towards those crimes. The use of such broad language to describe the offence suggests that this new offence is intended to capture a wide swath of activity which relates to advocating the concept of terrorism. This moves the definition of criminal conduct far beyond a prohibition on advocating for terrorism attacks.”

The analysis notes that, unlike promotion of hatred or even child pornography offences, Bill C-51 “contains no public interest or educational defences. That is, academics could not claim that expressions captured by the new offence had a legitimate educational purpose. A professor leading a classroom debate about whether terrorism can be justified in some circumstances, such as during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, may not be certain he/she is protected from the reach of the new legislation.”

The harmful effects of such an offence “lie not just in its broad scope and application, but also from its effect on academics whose exercise of self-censorship will shut down avenues for fruitful and important inquiries and discussions,” the CAUT says.

In discussing the expanded powers for CSIS, the CAUT notes that by the 1960s RCMP surveillance on university and colleges campuses was so severe that the Prime Minister and a Federal Justice Minister intervened to try to limit such activities. These activities nevertheless reached new heights by the 1970s [1]. The CAUT says “Bill C-51 turns the clock back on the modest gains of the past and opens up the possibility of increased surveillance on campus.”

“The trigger for CSIS’s expanded authority is broad, and includes situations where academics are exercising academic freedom,” says the CAUT. “CSIS is able to use its expanded powers when there are threats to the security of Canada, an existing term in the CSIS Act that has not been amended by C-51.”

Among the definitions of such threats in the CSIS Act are:

“foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person,”


“activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada.”

The CAUT gives examples of activities that could run afoul of the first definition, including foreign-funded academic work detailing the destruction of the natural environment as a result of tar sands development, or a student group planning “to disrupt a Canadian mining corporation recruitment event on campus to protest environmental damage from mining operation in El Salvador,” if such a group had received a donation from a foreign NGO, for instance.

It is also plain to see how the government and police could consider a wide range of campus activities to be “directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction… [of] the constitutionally established system of government in Canada.” The danger exists that political movements and political thought advocating for democratic renewal and a modern constitution, a new direction for the economy and the rights of Quebec and the First Nations could be criminalized on this basis.

CAUT notes that there is “no definition of measures that may be taken to reduce a threat to the security of Canada,” and the only limits written into Bill C-51 say that agents may not inflict bodily harm, obstruct or pervert the course of justice, or “violate the sexual integrity of an individual.” Charter rights may be violated with a judicial rubber stamp if CSIS deems necessary. Such powers could easily be used to prevent a Canadian academic from travelling to speak abroad, the CAUT points out.

For the CAUT’s analysis, “What does C-51 Mean for Academic Freedom & Campus Free Speech?” click here.

  1. Spying 101: The RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917 – 1997. Steve Hewitt, University of Toronto Press, 2002.


For more information about Bill C-51 and people’s opposition, see Previous Issues of Renewal Update


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