Academic Freedom and Anti-Oppression in the Classroom


Recent situations, including those at Penn State and Drexel University in the United States and at Dalhousie University in Canada, have forced Teaching Assistants, Faculty, and the unions that represent them to reflect carefully on the role of academic freedom in fostering or neutralizing the spread of hate. As important sites of knowledge production, Universities play a critical role in either upholding or disrupting the oppressive power structures that permeate our society. To that end, as Teaching Assistants and Contract Faculty, we are often tasked with making difficult choices about where to draw the line between genuine intellectual curiosity and debate, and oppressive or disruptive comments made in our learning, teaching, and working environments. This includes physical classroom settings, but also discussion forums for online courses, our email inboxes and outboxes, and the office hours we hold with our students. How do we distinguish between academic freedom and hate speech? What tools are at our disposal for dealing with disruptive, oppressive behaviour in our University community?


According to Carleton University’s policies,

The University’s fundamental commitment to scholarship encourages its members to perform to the highest standards of academic excellence. The University upholds its members’ academic freedom so they can carry out their scholarly work without threat of interference.

Academic freedom is the freedom to examine, question, teach and learn. It involves the right to investigate, speculate and comment without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large. 

Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with ethical guidelines and human rights law, and the scholarly obligation to base research and teaching on an honest search for knowledge. It may also be circumscribed by civil and criminal law.

The frank discussion of controversial ideas, the examination of various or competing perspectives, the pursuit and publication of controversial research, and the study and teaching of material with controversial and even offensive content in the context of conscientious, professional instruction in the University are protected within academic freedom.

Academic freedom is not a blanket right, but a deeply complex concept that is nuanced by our obligations to human rights and equity. Fostering a safe environment in which every student and instructor’s right to academic freedom is respected means also recognizing our obligations with respect to human rights and anti-discrimination policies. As Employees, we are required to help uphold and enforce all University policies, including Carleton’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Policy and Carleton’s Human Rights Policy, which

requires tolerance, civil conduct, and respect for the rights of others. It endeavours to provide a safe environment, conducive to personal and intellectual growth, which is not only free of discrimination, injustice and violence but is also characterized by understanding, respect, peace, tolerance, trust, openness and fairness.

Discrimination is understood as a practice or action, whether intentional or not, and based upon prohibited grounds of discrimination, that imposes burdens, obligations or disadvantages on an individual or group that are not imposed on others, or that withholds or limits access to opportunities, benefits and advantages available to other members of the University community.

Navigating the University’s policies with respect to discrimination and academic freedom requires an explicitly anti-oppressive framework throughout the entire teaching process, from lesson planning, to grading, to leading classroom conversations. Carleton’s Equity policy includes a commitment to

increase the access, retention and graduation of groups of students who have traditionally been under-represented, underserved and/or disadvantaged in University programs; and provide and maintain a supportive, hospitable and welcoming educational environment for all students, faculty, staff and associated professionals in the University.

To that end, TAs and CIs should not tolerate comments in the classroom that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, nativist, ableist, classist, or otherwise oppressive, that serve not to advance human knowledge and understanding, but rather to dehumanize certain groups in society.


So what can you do if a student makes oppressive, dehumanizing comments?

1. Pivot to pedagogy.

Sometimes, comments of this nature come not from a place of hatred or malice, but from a genuine lack of understanding or careful thought. Helping students unpack the comments and carefully explaining why they are so harmful is an important part of our obligations under academic freedom and other University policies.

2. Remind students of their own rights and responsibilities.

Undergraduates are required to abide by a code of conduct, including their own set of rights and responsibilities regarding academic freedom.

The traditional privileges of freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression which are enjoyed by members of a university community are reflected in the concept of academic freedom. These can be assured only if all members of the community share the responsibility of granting these freedoms to others and accept the obligation of a standard of behaviour which respects the rights of others.

Students should always be mindful of not only their own right to academic freedom, but also their responsibility for ensuring the academic freedom of each and every one of their classmates by refraining from conduct that is discriminatory, hostile, or oppressive.

3. Ask the student to leave.

Students who fail to abide by University policies may be removed from class and/or charged with misconduct under University policy. If a student repeatedly engages in oppressive or otherwise disruptive behaviour, instructors have a right—and a responsibility to the rest of their students—to remove the student from the situation.

If the student refuses to leave and you require assistance, call Campus Safety at 613-520-4444. Report the incident immediately to your supervisor and the Union.


As an employee of Carleton University, you have a right to a safe working environment, free from discrimination and harassment. If at any point you are made to feel unsafe, contact Campus Safety and the Union. If at any point you are reprimanded, verbally or otherwise, or face any disciplinary action for exercising your rights and responsibilities under University policy or the Collective Agreement, contact the Union.


You can contact the Union at any time if you have questions or concerns.

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