How Do Threats and Harassment Affect Academic Freedom?

[Content warning: misogynistic language and harassment]

Friday night, I received a phone message at work. The anonymous caller directed a stream of angry invective at me, accusing me of breaking down the fabric of society and of paving the way for Sharia Law. “You better watch out, you man-hating bitch,” he warned. After ranting for several minutes, he concluded pithily: “Cunt.”

I wish that I could say this was the first time I have been threatened in this way. Over the years since becoming a moderately high profile (well, in small, Canadian circles anyway) feminist scholar and public intellectual, I have received anonymous threats and harassment by phone, email, Facebook Messenger, and snail mail a few times a year. In 2012, I was the plaintiff in a criminal harassment case that ended in a conviction and prison time for the defendant.

Three notes about the foregoing:

First, lots of prominent women, LGBTQ, racialized, and otherwise minoritized scholars receive a lot more of this type of harassment than I do. It only happens to me about half a dozen times a year at most, less some years. For me, it’s not frequent, but it is predictable.

Second, the criminal trial I was involved with in 2012 involved harassment of dozens or more of mostly women and feminist scholars. I wasn’t the only victim. However, I was the only plaintiff because the Crown only needed one plaintiff to proceed with the case. The police came to me to make a formal complaint because I had been vocal about the ongoing pattern of harassment by the perpetrator.

Finally, I have also (of course) been subject to harassment on Twitter. However, while discouraging, that harassment is a little less worrying than the types I described in the previous paragraph because in the case of Twitter strangers are typically just responding to my tweets or to others’ tweets about me, but don’t actually go to the trouble of looking up my address, email address, or phone number. When they look you up, you start to worry about how badly they hate you. And on Twitter, people don’t so much threaten me as say that I shouldn’t be a professor and that I should be fired. Some of the people who do this claim to support free speech. Don’t worry. I have good tight Twitter settings. I only see these comments if I go looking for them.

I am telling you all this because the harassment of scholars like me for doing the kind of work that we do compromises our academic freedom.

One more time for folks at the back :

The harassment of scholars like me for doing the kind of work that we do compromises our academic freedom. 

Let me explain what I mean by first quoting three key passages of my faculty association’s memorandum of agreement with the University of Waterloo. (I’ve discussed this MOA a bunch of other times on this blog, most notably here.)

6.1 Academic freedom provides the possibility of examining, questioning, teaching, and learning, and involves the right to investigate, speculate, and comment without deference to prescribed doctrine. As such, it entails the freedom of individuals to practise their professions of teacher, researcher and scholar, the freedom to publish their findings, the freedom to teach and engage in open discussion, the freedom to be creative, the freedom to select, acquire, disseminate, and use documents in the exercise of their professional activities, and the freedom to criticize the University and the Association. Academic freedom also entails freedom from institutional censorship.

6.2 The University and the Association recognize that the provision of academic freedom is particularly vital to those whose approaches to teaching, scholarship, and research result in criticism of and challenge to established, conventional beliefs and practices.

6.3 The academic freedom of any person shall not be infringed upon or abridged in any manner. As academic freedom will wither and die unless the university community as a whole is committed to it, the University and the Association agree to support and defend academic freedom at the University of Waterloo.

(Here’s the full MOA.)

My feminist scholarship is grounded in critique of the status quo. Section 6.1 of my MOA recognizes that I get to engage in this kind of scholarship, and 6.2 makes clear that the protection of my academic freedom is especially important in light of the critical character of the work that I do. Section 6.3 says that UW and my FA will defend my academic freedom, but it doesn’t say how. (Later, section 6.5 says that the university won’t censor me or scholarly materials I wish to use. However, this is only one among the available ways of defending my academic freedom.)

Here’s the thing: Every time I get a personal threatening message, I wonder whether I should beef up security in my office, change my routes to and from work, buy a tin of pepper spray to carry in my bag… I’ve also spent hours of my professional life communicating with police and administrators about these matters; I even spent a day in court giving testimony. Both the fear created by the harassment I experience, and the time commitment that it demands of me get in the way of my scholarship. Worrying about my safety and the safety of my family distracts me from my work. And every hour I spend dealing with the legal system is an hour that I am not devoting to my research and teaching. So, in material ways, threats and harassment prevent me engaging in scholarly work.

So far, this pattern of harassment has not scared me off from doing the kind of work that I do. (Well, to be honest, I’m more risk-averse on Twitter than I would be if I hadn’t had these experiences. That’s not a very serious sacrifice, although I will say that it’s a shame the world doesn’t get to enjoy a bit more of Gutsy In-Your-Face Lady Day.)

However, I know tons of good, smart, principled, brave scholars who have stopped working in particular domains or who have stopped disseminating in certain mediums because of the threats and harassment they have received.

Whether scholars like me are merely slowed down in our work by the distractions and additional tasks that come with being harassed, or whether we altogether stop doing certain kinds of work because of the threats, it seems clear that threats and harassment impede our academic freedom.

So, when universities like mine say that they are committed to defending academic freedom, and in particular the academic freedom of scholars critical of existing systems of power, that commitment must be operationalized in terms of good, clear avenues of support for scholars subject to such harassment.

Further, as universities increasingly encourage their scholars to engage with the media and to translate their knowledge beyond academe, it is increasingly important that they work to keep their public intellectuals safe.

Over the years, I’ve had mixed success being taken seriously and supported by university administration and campus police. Sometimes, they’re very good, and sometimes it’s an uphill battle. In the beginning of the 2011-2012 case I referred to above, some key people at the university claimed that the harasser was just expressing his opinion and that it was a matter of freedom of speech. (His opinion involved describing women scholars as evil and making a lot of references to bombs and explosions.)

No doubt, I have an easier time mustering university support than a student or sessional instructor would have. And, because I’m a fairly prominent campus gadfly, I probably get quicker return calls than a lot of other faculty members do. I don’t know yet how this latest chapter will turn out in that respect. I’ll keep you posted.

One final provocative point. Academic freedom isn’t a zero-sum game; so we really do not need to choose which threats to academic freedom we are most concerned about. That said, there is way more anger in the media and among the public about the purported threat to academic freedom when students oppose campus talks by controversial non-scholars like Milo Yiannopoulos or Faith Goldy (something that happens a handful of times each year) than there is about the ongoing, predictable, system-wide harassment of scholars — scholars! — like me, and the detrimental effect that harassment has on our scholarship. That needs to change.