MONTREAL -- How far should academic freedom go? What are the lines that university professors shouldn’t cross in front of students when bringing up sensitive issues or using controversial words? Is self-censorship already taking its toll in the classroom?

Those are just a few of the issues that will be addressed in the coming months by a special commission charged with setting boundaries on freedom for university professors.

Headed by former PQ minister Alexandre Cloutier, now vice-rector of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, the commission will have until the end of the year to discuss the scope and limits of academic freedom, including the use of words now considered taboo in university classrooms.

In its recommendations, the commission will have to lay out the expected role and obligations of each party (students, teachers, universities and government), by deciding whether or not to ask elected officials to adopt a law providing a better framework for the contentious issue.

Some argue that academic freedom has been threatened for some time by radical elements among students. Last September, a University of Ottawa professor, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, was suspended following a complaint for using a racial slur in one of her classes.

The Legault government took a stand in favour of academic freedom in the months that followed and in March, mandated a task force to document and examine the phenomenon and make recommendations. The report is expected in December.

Since March, the Cloutier Commission has received 43 briefs, many from teachers concerned about the issue and eager to assert their right to teach in classrooms without any doctrinal constraints.

On Tuesday, the commission began public consultations that will last until Sept. 1. The five days of public hearings are being broadcast live on YouTube.

A questionnaire was also sent to 33,000 professors and lecturers, allowing commission to "draw some conclusions," Cloutier said in a telephone interview, and especially to gauge the extent of the phenomenon and the perceived threat to teachers' freedom.


“There's no doubt,” he said, “that concern has spread to the classrooms of our universities, whether it's the prevailing chill around the words used, the topics addressed or the choices of guest speakers. The risk of giving in to self-censorship seems to be very present.”

From the various briefs submitted to the commission, many agree, "there is no right to offend and there is no right not to be offended. This was a recurring theme in the submissions," said the commissioner.

In his role as commissioner, Cloutier has been cautious about revealing his thoughts on the extent of the phenomenon, but he agrees that there are "very real situations that have been cited and there are real concerns" in the university environment.

In his first public appearance as head of the commission, last March, Cloutier said that "democracy would be directly affected if we were to prohibit certain topics from being discussed in our universities, if certain subjects were banned or considered taboo.”

Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann said that the matter of academic freedom in our universities is a “fundamental' issue” and is of “great concern” to her.

Premier François Legault spoke out against censorship in universities last winter and said he was leaning toward a simple government statement rather than a law, convinced that universities would want to preserve their autonomy and independence.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Aug. 24, 2021