The case of defamation of University of Alberta Lecturer Dougal MacDonald

Threat to Academic Freedom

The following article, “Threat to Academic Freedom,” was written in 1953 by Charles Herbert Huestis, great grandfather of Dr. Dougal MacDonald, and reproduced by permission of the family. Various sympathizers of the claim that the famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 was man-made by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin are demanding the dismissal of Dr. MacDonald who teaches at the University of Alberta. They claim that even if his views on the so-called Holodomor were not presented in his classroom, he is causing transgenerational trauma and his presence at the university poses a threat. This stand not only blatantly violates the need to make sure freedom of speech prevails in society, and especially in a university environment where inquiry and speech are critical to learning, but constitutes the promotion of an official ideology to which everyone must conform, under the hoax that there are no alternative facts. This is not in conformity with any notion of democracy of any kind. The real issue is to transcend the lowering of the level of political discourse which claims to defend rights by banning what the forces engaged in unleashing an anti-social offensive call hate speech. The battle is not only for democracy at this time when even the most basic democratic liberties are being taken away in the name of high ideals. The fight to use one’s speech as an expression of one’s conscience is also an integral part of the battle of democracy – the battle whereby the people empower themselves by affirming their rights in a manner which enables them to hold those who act with impunity to account. The right to use one’s speech is a human right. Without it, one cannot deliberate on the direction of the economy and other crucial matters which affect people’s lives and those of society itself such as matters pertaining to crime and punishment, war and peace, the role of ideologies and so on.

The article “Threat to Academic Freedom” was originally published in the Toronto Star, September 3, 1953.

TML Weekly, December 14, 2019

* * *

The wave of anti-communism that has been sweeping over the United States is one of the most amazing social phenomena of modern times. The president [Dwight D. Eisenhower] said a short time ago that it was receding but it has grown in volume.

The New Republic the other day had a cartoon of a hooded, black draped figure labelled “Fear,” wielding a whip under whose lash Uncle Sam grovels in terror. For some years the antics of [the] committee on Un-American Activities have been viewed with a certain amusement; but no longer so. Eminent scientists have been brought before it and asked questions which indicate the ignorance of the inquisitioners. The atomic energy committee has been similarly lacking in intelligent inquiry. Leonard Engel, who writes occasionally in The Nation on the progress of science says, “In one case of which I know a respected engineer employed by an affiliate of a great university was ruled ineligible for access to secret materials on the sole charge that he had supported Henry Wallace [of the Progressive Party] in the last election.”

Now the inquisition is penetrating public schools and universities. The Un-American Activities [committee] has demanded that all school books shall be submitted to them for search of subversive materials. According to the report of the scientists’ committee on loyalty problems, security now affects half of all American scientists in fields like physics and a growing proportion in other branches of science. It has now spread to the campus: several departments of the University of California, says Engel – which also demands a loyalty oath – make security clearances a requirement for everybody, regardless of the nature or sponsorship of his work.

The Cleveland, Ohio board of education has recently demanded an oath of loyalty from all its public school teachers, and the newspaper Plain Dealer printed a picture of the oath-taking. C.W. Lawrence, breakfast commentator of the Plain Dealer, wrote to his editor: “It seems to me that picture is symbolic of what has been happening in our country in the past few months – a weakening of our national character, a deterioration of our national self-confidence, a loss of our sense of humour, as the result of a great unreasoning fear of a nation far weaker, both physically and ideologically than ours.” Indeed, the Americans are aping the very conduct which they condemn in Russia. When the atomic bomb was exploded at Los Alamos, an eminent American said, “This is the end of democracy.” He meant of course that militarization, secrecy and thought control would be extended so far that self-governing people would lose the power to shape their own lives.

A much-publicized incident of academic intolerance in universities occurred in the University of Washington a short time ago. Professor Henry Steele Commager of the department of history of Columbia University, under the title of “Red Baiting in the Colleges,” writes of this in the New Republic July 25. The Washington legislature had enacted that no salary should be paid to any state employee who was a member of an organization which “advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or violence” which is the formula used to designate Communists since the Communist Party is as lawful in the States as the Republican or Democratic.

A combing of the faculty uncovered six members who could be included in that formula, three of them alleged to be present, and three former, members of the party. The faculty committee was inclined to be lenient but not the president, R.B. Allen. His contention was that membership in the C.P. is in itself evidence of unfitness and incompetence, and that concealment of that membership makes the original offense doubly heinous. Professor Commager writes: “No instance has yet been produced where a Communist on a university faculty actually did harm to students or to scientific research. The assumption that a Communist will fatally mislead students is based on the quite unexplored assumption that college students are nincompoops.”

And this brings me to what started me writing this article. Recently Professor George Hunter, head of the department of biochemistry of Alberta university, was summarily dismissed by the board of governors after 20 years of brilliant service. Dr. Hunter is not, I believe, a member of the Labour Progressive Party, but is deeply sympathetic with the Communist philosophy and headed up a peace council in Edmonton this year. The president of the university gave a statement to the press in which he said Dr. Hunter’s political views had been taken into consideration by the board. “His political views,” said the president were not directly responsible for his dismissal. It was brought on by a culminating dissatisfaction over a period of years. But the board of governors had to take note of repeated complaints by students that Dr. Hunter was using his classroom to propagate his political views. In lieu of notice, Dr. Hunter was given several months’ salary by the board.”

Efforts to obtain from the chancellor and president any further information on the question have proved unavailing. Dr. Hunter, in a statement to the press, says that no reason was given by the board for his dismissal. As to the president’s statement that he used his classroom to propagate his political views, he denies this categorically. He said to the press that at the close of his last lecture of the winter term on April 7, having ended his official lectures at 11:30 am, he used the following quarter hour in giving his views on contemporary world events. As a result some 17 students of his class of 257 signed a round-robin of protest and this was presented to the board. Such students are emotionally incapable of forming judgements on controversial questions and it is doubtful if they are intellectually fitted for undergraduate studies.

Some years ago when a group of students at Toronto university invited [General Secretary of the Communist Party] Tim Buck, protest was made to the president, Dr. Coy. In reply, he said that university students were supposed to be of adult intelligence and thus able to form their own judgements and they would not be prevented from hearing both sides of any question.

Up to the present, outside some sections of the press and conspicuously, the province of Quebec and the leader of the Progressive Conservative party, Canada has been relatively free from anti-Communist hysteria. It is deplorable that it should break out in a university with the fine academic tradition established by H.M. Tory and R.C. Wallace, its first presidents.

The editor at Saturday Night, commenting on the incident, wrote: “When the governing body of a university commits the grave actions of dismissing a university professor 53 years of age with 30 years of distinguished service in his science, it owes it to him and to the public and to the principles of academic freedom to make the fullest and frankest statement of the grounds of its actions. This, as I have said above, the governors refuse to do.”


Statements of Support from University and Canadian Colleagues

Statement by President of the Association of Academic Staff, University of Alberta

Dear Members,

It has been in the news lately that Dougal MacDonald, an assistant lecturer at the U. of A, made remarks on his private Facebook page, which have come under scrutiny. Dougal MacDonald’s remarks were his own and not linked to his U. of A. professional activities. The University’s Deputy Provost Wendy Rodgers said in an email statement:

“As a private citizen, Mr. MacDonald has the right to express his opinion, and others have the right to critique or debate that opinion,” she said. “It is our understanding that he has not expressed these views in the context of his employment relationship with the university.”

Indeed, as a private citizen Dougal MacDonald has freedom of expression, which is protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom of expression also protects the right, as indicated above, to critique or debate that opinion by a private citizen such as Dougal MacDonald, which the University Student Union has done. However, the Student Union has also called for Dougal MacDonald to take back his statements or resign. The call by the SU for him to take back his statements can be seen as pressure for retroactive self-censorship. This is inconsistent with principles of freedom of expression. The SU-proposed alternative to retraction of his statements, resignation, is not appropriate either, as it is regarding statements made by Dougal MacDonald in the capacity of a private citizen.

Kevin Kane

(December 1, 2019)

Petition from Faculty Members, University of Alberta

Akanksha Bhatnagar

President, University of Alberta Students’ Union


Dear Akanksha,

We are very concerned about the statement issued by the Students’ Union at the University of Alberta in regard to Dr. Dougal MacDonald, who teaches in the Faculty of Education.

Your condemnation of Dr. MacDonald’s remarks on the Holodomor and demand that he take them back or resign are incompatible with the University’s policies and principles on Freedom of Expression. Just this week the General Faculties Council approved the University’s new statement on Freedom of Expression which reads:

“The university is a place of free and open inquiry in all matters, and all members of the university community have the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, view, challenge, profess, and learn. Members of the university community have the right to criticize and question other views expressed on our campuses, but may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with others’ freedom of expression. Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or misguided. It is for individuals, not the institution, to make those judgments for themselves and to act not by seeking to suppress expression, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose. The university does not attempt to shield members of the university community from ideas or opinions they disagree with or find offensive.”

Dr. MacDonald’s remarks are protected by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as by the academic freedom to extramural expression that is a necessary right of all academic staff at the University. As the statement notes, in the University the proper response to ideas with which we do not agree is rigorous debate with those ideas, not their suppression.

The learning environment is not, as your statement implies, made “safe” when any individual or group attempts to prevent another’s exercise of freedom of expression. It is fundamentally undermined, as the ability to examine, analyze, and critique all ideas is the lifeblood of the University.

For list of signatories, click here

(December 2, 2019)

Open Letter from Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship to President of University

Dear President Turpin,

I am writing as president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), an organization of university faculty members and others dedicated to the defence of academic freedom and the merit principle in higher education. (For further information, please see our website at

Faculty of Education instructor Dougal MacDonald was criticized strongly by members of the University of Alberta community (and others) for remarks he made in November regarding the Holodomor. Some have suggested that the U of A reprimand or fire Mr MacDonald. The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship commends the University of Alberta for much in its response to complaints it has received. For one, the U of A has rejected demands to sanction Mr MacDonald. For another, the U of A plans to bring scholars together in the near future to discuss the Holodomor publicly.

Nonetheless, two elements in the U of A’s response to complaints appear inconsistent with the university’s stated commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus.

The first is the insistence by the university that Mr MacDonald spoke about the Holodomor as a private citizen, not as an academic. Wendy Rodgers, Vice Provost of the University of Alberta, for instance, speaking on behalf of the university, has been quoted as saying, “It is our understanding that he has not expressed these views in the context of his employment relationship with the university.”

Because he is an academic, Mr MacDonald possesses freedom of extramural utterance. The U of A is not simply respecting his freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The university has an obligation apart from the Charter, simply as an academic institution, to protect and foster extramural utterance.

As well, in her remark, Dr Rodgers is suggesting that had Mr MacDonald said what he said about the Holodomor as a U of A academic, in teaching, research, or service, it would have been both appropriate and within the university’s rights for the U of A to reprimand or sanction him. Mr MacDonald enjoys academic freedom, and an important aspect of academic freedom is freedom of discussion in all academic contexts. The content of Mr MacDonald’s views could not be used as grounds to discipline him were he to express those views in an academic context rather than on Facebook or elsewhere.

The second is the university’s desire to enter the discussion of the Holodomor and to announce an official university position on an historical event. This comes out clearly in the joint statement by the deans of Arts and Education. The deans write that they “state categorically that this

[that the Holodomor is ‘a myth concocted by the Hitlerite Nazis to discredit the Soviet Union’]

is not true.” That desire is also present in your own statement, written with three others, “Raising Awareness of the Holodomor”: “his views do not represent and are not endorsed by the University of Alberta.”

This desire is contrary to the statement on Freedom of Expression recently approved by the U of A General Faculties Council:

“It is for individuals, not the institution, to make those judgments for themselves and to act not by seeking to suppress expression, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose.”

The principle that universities themselves take no stance on substantive matters is a wise and important principle. It ensures that academics do not suffer the pressure of having to conform to a party line. In doing so, it preserves the trust the public has in research emanating from the university.

We respectfully request that you respond to our letter. With your permission, we will post your response along with this letter on our website.


Mark Mercer, PhD President, Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS)

(December 10, 2019)


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