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Academic Freedom and Individual Rights

Poses, Roy M. MD

Letters to the Editor

Dr. Poses is director of research, Division of General Internal Medicine, Brown University Center for Primary Care and Prevention, Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, Pawtucket, Rhode Island and associate professor of medicine and community health, Brown University School of Medicine, Providence, Rhode Island.

Free enquiry is central to the mission of the liberal university. Free enquiry requires freedom of expression. The description by Zweibel and Goldstein of a conflict resolution policy,1 however, was premised on restricting medical students' free expression.

The conflict resolution policy was part of an official response to the publication of what Zweibel and Goldstein variously described as “the worst, most disrespectful, misogynistic sex jokes,” “demeaning sexual jokes,” “insulting remarks about particular individuals,” “gratuitous comments about women medical students,” and “inappropriate and offensive content” in a single issue of The Pelican, a University of Ottawa medical student newsletter. The authors did not suggest that these writings conveyed any specific threats of physical harm, or that they were part of a larger pattern of harassment against specific individuals. The official response also included condemnations of The Pelican by multiple administrators, and insistence that “remedial action be taken by The Pelican's editorial board” and its parent organization, the Aesculapian Society. As a result, The Pelican acquiesced to the imposition of an editorial review policy, and to the requirement to balance freedom of expression with, among other things, “creating a respectful environment.”

Thus the article is based on an ominous premise: university officials must take remedial action when students write things the officials deem upsetting or offensive. Maybe the authors' acceptance of this premise should not be a surprise. After all, the University of Ottawa's official definition of academic freedom includes obligations “to refrain from harassing, from defaming… and to respect relationships based on trust.”2 Defining academic freedom in terms of prohibition of speech or writing that university officials find harassing, defamatory, or disrespectful is Orwellian doublespeak. This policy subverts the free enquiry that is essential to the mission of the university in a liberal society. Zweibel and Goldstein employed their conflict resolution method to subvert the central mission of the liberal university.

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1. Zweibel EB, Goldstein R. Conflict resolution at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine: The Pelican and the sign of the triangle. Acad Med. 2001;76:337–44.
2. University of Ottawa's Sexual Harassment Office. Academic Freedom. 〈〉.
© 2001 Association of American Medical Colleges