Rick Mehta: a firing offence or just offensive

Rick Mehta

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner September 10, 2018.

I will confess I’m conflicted about the news Acadia University has fired Rick Mehta.

On Friday, the university confirmed it had terminated the controversial psychology professor, effective August 31, but then refused to say why or “provide any elaboration” about what it called “a personnel matter.”

Acadia also wouldn’t release the results of an investigation it commissioned last winter into complaints against Mehta. That report, by retired Dalhousie law professor Wayne MacKay, is “a privileged document,” a university spokesperson told Canadian Press.

As for Mehta himself, he claims he was told he would only be allowed to obtain a copy of MacKay’s report if he signed what he described as a “gag order.”

So there is much we do not know.

That hasn’t stopped advocates from both sides of the free speech divide from weighing in. As I write this on Saturday morning, 3,135 people — and counting in the aftermath of his firing — have signed an eight-month-old change.org petition that claims Mehta is “being attacked by Marxist and Socialist forces that are trying to stifle debate and shut down free speech… KEEP HIM IN THE CLASSROOM.”

Meanwhile, 1,966 other people — and also counting — have signed a counter change.org petition demanding Mehta’s “full removal from the university.”

As I’ve written previously, I think Mehta’s worldview is… well, judge for yourself:

Mehta claims multiculturalism is a scam; the gender wage gap a sham; feminism “seems hell bent on taking down Western civilization;” now ex-Tory Senator Lynn Behak had it right when she praised the “positive experiences” of residential schools; “endless apologies and compensation” to indigenous peoples have created a victim narrative; the civil rights’ group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, is really a hate group that engages in “reprehensible practices;” and so on and so fifth…

That said, I believe Mehta has as much right to be a Twitter twit as the rest of us, inflicting his odious personal opinions about what-he-knows-not in the public echo chambers of social media and fringe-y, conspiratorial alt-right websites.

That’s Mehta’s freedom of speech right.

We should never be able to prevent him from expressing those views, however distasteful, in such forums. Instead, we can — and should — challenge those views at every turn with research and facts to counter Mehta’s own research-and-fact-free opinions.

For me, however, the issue becomes more complicated once we move inside the university, where Mehta had been a professor of psychology until his recent firing as a nothing-to-see-here “personnel matter.”

According to Universities Canada’s 2011 statement on academic freedom, “academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment [in order to] pursue truth, educate students and disseminate knowledge and understanding… Academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship.”

But there is an important and reasonable caveat to that freedom. “Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech,” the Universities Canada statement notes, “academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.”

What that means is that, as a journalism professor, I don’t have the right, in the name of academic freedom, to turn my first-year journalism course into a forum for my own uninformed, unresearched theories on quantum physics.

Rick Mehta is a psychology professor. Last year, according to Acadia’s academic calendar, he taught courses in Introductory Psychology and Research and Design Analysis. It is difficult to imagine, except in the most tangential way, how Mehta’s personal views on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s civil rights work, for example, could find their way into those syllabi.

So, for me, there are questions.

We know that Acadia claimed last winter to be investigating Mehta “for the manner in which you are expressing views that you are alleged to be advancing or supporting and, in some instances, time that you are spending on these issues in the classroom.” (my emphasis)

We need to parse that sentence. It appears the university says it was investigating Mehta, both for his personal views (freedom of speech) and also for what he was saying, in some instances, in his classroom. Did the latter violate his academic freedom?

We know some students complained Mehta used his classroom to promote his own political views. “I pay to sit and listen in that class,” one student told the local newspaper. “Don’t use my time I paid for to talk about [topics that don’t relate to the course].” Other students said Mehta’s well-publicized comments about all manner of controversial subjects — outside the classroom as well as within — had made them feel “uncomfortable” and “unsafe.” Some even stopped attending his classes.

University students should not be “protected” from views they might find uncomfortable, or even disagreeable. At the same time, they should not be forced to pay to listen to the uninformed (and unconnected-to-their-coursework) rants of a polemicist who describes his own opinions as “objective statements” and refuses to acknowledge the power imbalance between him and his students.

The unanswered question for me is why did Acadia University actually fire Rick Mehta. Was it for expressing his views, or because of his behaviour in the classroom? Or both? And, if both, did the university violate Mehta’s legitimate right to freedom of expression in the process.

The MacKay report may provide some answers to those questions.

Rick Mehta should waive his “privacy rights” in this “personnel matter.” And the university — after redacting the names of student complainants — should release the MacKay report in full.

That way, we would all have a factual basis on which to discuss our opinions about the case. What a concept.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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