HOME  DISINFORMATION  PEOPLE  HILBORN  HUNTER  LEISHMAN  MORGAN  PRESS  CHRC
Kenneth Hilborn   Western News   22-Apr-1999   Chilling effect on research and debate
Kenneth Hilborn
Kenneth Hilborn
External link to University of Western Ontario web site
"Disagreement among historians regarding the reliability and interpretation of evidence is a normal part of the process of historical research.  The right to offer new interpretations of old evidence, as well as to seek out and publish new evidence that challenges prevailing views, is indispensable to the profession." — Kenneth Hilborn

The original of the Kenneth Hilborn letter to the editor of the Western News can be found online at: http://www.uwo.ca/wnews/issues/apr22/letters.html

The University of Western Ontario home page can be accessed by clicking its logo on the left above, and the Western News Online home page can be accessed by clicking its logo below.


External link to Western News Online

Plans ‘pose threat’

In the most recent issue of the SAFS Newsletter, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship draws attention to the reported plans of the federal government for a dangerous revision of the Criminal Code with respect to alleged "hate" propaganda.  SAFS expresses concern that if the changes apparently being contemplated were adopted, they "would pose a serious threat to freedom of enquiry and discussion in academic institutions."

Perhaps the most outrageous of the changes in question is one that would rule out truth as a defence when a person was accused of promoting "hate" through denial of any "historically recognized act of genocide."  (The definition of "genocide" adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations is open to extremely broad interpretation.)

Disagreement among historians regarding the reliability and interpretation of evidence is a normal part of the process of historical research.  The right to offer new interpretations of old evidence, as well as to seek out and publish new evidence that challenges prevailing views, is indispensable to the profession.  What is "historically recognized" can mean only what the prevailing view is at the time in question.  It may be difficult enough for scholars to stand against that view without having to face the risk that some group favored by it may try to have them investigated and prosecuted on criminal charges.

Being human, historians are by no means immune from national, ethnic or religious bias, nor are they immune from politically-motivated fads and fashions.  Whether Soviet policies in Ukraine during the 1930s, or in Afghanistan during the 1980s, should be characterized as "genocide" is a question that different historians may answer differently, depending on their own ideological inclinations and on the political currents of the time.  Canadians of Turkish and Armenian origin may well hold different views regarding what Turks did to Armenians during the First World War.  Those of Serb origin may well dissent from the prevailing view in the Western world regarding events in Kosovo.

There should be nothing in the Criminal Code to permit the launching of criminal prosecutions against one side or the other in such controversies, even if one side has prevailed sufficiently at a given time to claim that its version of the facts is "historically recognized" and that those who disagree are thereby promoting "hatred" of some victimized group.  Legislatures and courtrooms are not the place to settle historical disputes.

History is not the only discipline in which freedom of research and discussion may be endangered by the government's plans.  In psychology, for instance, the changes in law threaten to create legal jeopardy for both teachers and researchers in such fields as sexual orientation, sex differences and race differences.

Even if no prosecution is actually undertaken, the mere possibility of it may have a chilling effect on research and debate in controversial areas.

The SAFS Newsletter supplies an address to which academics concerned about this matter should write (as the SAFS Board of Directors has already done): Hon. Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice, East Memorial Building, 284 Wellington Street (4th Floor), Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0H8.

Kenneth H.W. Hilborn
Professor Emeritus of History


HOME  DISINFORMATION  PEOPLE  HILBORN  HUNTER  LEISHMAN  MORGAN  PRESS  CHRC