The University of Lethbridge faces legal reprisal after cancelling a February talk on "how wokism threatens academic freedom."
Dr. Frances Widdowson, formerly a professor at Mount Royal University, had her lecture booking rescinded by school administrators for comments suggesting there had been an educational benefit to residential schools.
According to the decision, the university permitted Widdowson's lecture in line with its policy on free expression but without the previously allotted space.
Mike Mahon, president of the vice-chancellor at the university, said they changed course after receiving "considerable feedback" from students and faculty. Two petitions emerged with more than 2,500 signatures demanding the university cancel the speech.
"It is clear that the harm associated with this talk impedes meaningful reconciliation," he said.
On Monday, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) announced they filed court action on behalf of Dr. Francis Widdowson, philosophy professor Dr. Paul Viminitz, who organized the talk, and student Jonah Pickle.
The applicants want school administrators to admit they breached several Charter Rights and Freedoms, including freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly.
They also want the court to grant an injunction requiring the university to permit the talk on campus in an allotted space.
Vimitz, a faculty member, invited Widdowson to speak on the dangers of 'woke ideology' regarding free speech, open inquiry, and dissent after she received her walking papers from Mount Royal University in 2021 for criticizing an indigenization agenda.
She made headlines in 2020 after claiming the Black Lives Matter movement 'destroyed' the campus and that there was an educational benefit to residential schools. More than 6,000 people petitioned for her firing.
"In a liberal democracy, it is essential that diverse voices and viewpoints be free to gather to share ideas, to seek truth, and to discuss policy," said lawyer Glenn Blackett, who filed the class action.
"This is perhaps most essential on a post-secondary campus, which fails to serve its function without open inquiry."
Under then-Premier Jason Kenney, the province instructed its 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions to either endorse free speech guidelines known as the Chicago principles — released in 2014 — or develop a separate, consistent policy. All institutions complied with the UCP government's December 15, 2019, deadline.
However, Widdowson has repeatedly suggested she faced severe repercussions for criticizing "woke ideas" and that the open exchange of ideas is under threat in universities today.
Vimitz had hoped the talk would have permitted that exchange of ideas and engage students in meaningful social and democratic discourse.
The court action claims school administrators cancelled the lecture on the grounds her talk would harm "meaningful reconciliation," posed a "safety" concern to students, and delegated decision-making, ostensibly, to "indigenous people."
Widdowson opted to give her talk at the University of Lethbridge Atrium, where a large group of left-wing protesters interfered with her ability to deliver the lecture.
"I was very, very heartened by the students. They disagreed with me," she said. "They had very important questions that they wanted to ask."
Widdowson clarified that although she "wasn't afraid or […] threatened by [the protest]," she ultimately moved the talk to Zoom after being drowned out by shouting, drumming, and chanting by the protestors.
Mahon thanked the protesters for advocating the "importance of truth before reconciliation" and "reflecting the values of the University of Lethbridge."
"I would like to express my sincere appreciation to our community members for conducting themselves in such a peaceful and powerful manner," he said.
Widdowson states this experience "is a textbook case of how 'woke-ism' is threatening academic freedom and freedom of expression on university campuses."
"Instead of encouraging faculty and students to engage with my ideas to [better understand] totalitarian identity politics' impact on the academy, the University of Lethbridge created an 'unsafe space' for critical thinking and open inquiry," said the academic.
"This means that the development of knowledge and theoretical understanding is being compromised at this academic institution."
The controversy ultimately spurred a call to action from the Alberta government to protect free speech on campuses further.
"I understand past comments made by this speaker are controversial, but I believe it is important for our universities and colleges to foster a strong culture of free speech and diverse viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are deemed controversial, or even offensive, barring speech intended to incite hatred or violence of course," said then-Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.
The minister clarified his comments should not be construed as agreement with any past statements made by Widdowson.
Opposition leader Rachel Notley said that the position "troubles" her.
"As far as I'm concerned, the idea of having someone come and speak at the university, particularly in Lethbridge, to a student body that consists of many Indigenous students about how they somehow benefited from residential schools is deeply troubling."
An online survey of 1,002 Albertans by Leger found that 80% agree or strongly agree that universities should mandate free speech. But, less than two-thirds (64%) support the province making changes to protect free speech at post-secondary institutions.
Only 57% of people aged 18-to-34 shared that opinion.
Most decided voters wanted the province to intervene, including UCP voters (78%) and their NDP counterparts (53%).
"Upholding free speech is not a partisan issue, and it shows that it truly is only a vocal minority trying to limit speech that they deem controversial," Nicolaides told Rebel News.
"Albertans rightfully recognize that we already have limits to free speech in Canada. Section 319(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada makes it a criminal offence to publicly communicate statements that incite hatred against any identifiable group," he said.
"Further, they understand the need to uphold freedom of speech below that threshold so that students and Albertans alike can develop critical thinking skills by engaging with different ideas and viewpoints."