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Freedom of expression and academic freedom in the classroom

The principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression are central to life on campus at the University of Ottawa, and to its mission to support teaching, learning and the advancement of knowledge.

This page contains a host of resources to help you get to know these concepts, their limits, and their application in a university setting.

This page has been designed to foster respectful dialogue and debate in our community, and a culture where diverse perspectives and opinions are encouraged and welcomed. When we understand the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression, we foster more inclusion and solidarity in the teaching, learning and research environment at the University of Ottawa.

The information below is based on the University’s policies and regulations, statements, and best practices. Every effort has been made to make this content accessible and to present these policies and statements accurately. However, it is not intended to replace or reinterpret the University’s official policies and regulations, or its positions on these principles.


What do academic freedom and freedom of expression mean?

Academic freedom and freedom of expression are two concepts that are central to university life. While they are related, they are not synonymous.

Freedom of expression means the fundamental right to express thoughts, ideas, opinions, and beliefs in all their forms (e.g., verbal, written, visual, artistic expression). That right is not absolute and may be limited under certain circumstances to protect individuals from hate or discriminatory speech.

Academic freedom is the “right of reasonable exercise of civil liberties and responsibilities in an academic setting” (APUO collective agreement, article 9, p. 55). Simply put, it means the freedom to teach, conduct research, publish, and take part in scholarly presentations — in a nutshell, to take part in academic research and teaching activities — without deference to prescribed doctrine, without interference from the administration or outside bodies, and in compliance with legislation and with regard for the academic freedom of others.

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Why are they important?

Freedom of expression and academic freedom form the cornerstone of the independence not only of universities in our society, but also of the people who work and study in them.

Universities are places of meeting and debate where multiple voices and perspectives are heard, fostering democracy and innovation in teaching and research.

As the University sets out in the Senate Statement on Freedom of Expression in the University Context: “[It] is essential that we [as University community members] collectively commit to creating and maintaining an environment that encourages discussion, dialogue, and debate, one that allows for the expression of a diversity of voices, including those that are marginalized and have been historically excluded. This environment should be one of openness to criticism, independence, civility, respect, and intellectual rigour.”

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To whom and how does freedom of expression and academic freedom apply at the University of Ottawa?

Freedom of expression applies to all members of the University community. As noted in University Policy 121 — Statement on Free Expression, “All members of the University of Ottawa community — teaching and research faculty, staff, and students, including both individuals and groups — and all visitors to the campus have the right to express their views freely.”

Academic freedom, on the other hand, applies to teaching staff, i.e., full-time professors, part-time professors, librarians, teaching and research assistants, demonstrators, lab monitors, tutors, correctors, and proctors. It is defined and governed by collective agreements between the University and its teaching staff.

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For more details:

In the classroom

What does that mean regarding my professors’ research approaches and teaching choices?

In the Senate Statement on Freedom of Expression in the University Context, the University affirms the importance of protecting freedom of expression and academic freedom in the University community, and the importance of creating an inclusive environment for teaching and learning.

The following items are extracted from the Statement:

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Freedom to teach

The University of Ottawa “recognize[s] and protect[s] teaching staff pedagogical choices, as well as their scholarly approaches and orientations. No word, concept, idea, work, or image can be barred a priori from use in a teaching or research context, within the limits prescribed by law.”

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Dialogue and diversity

The University also encourages the creation and maintenance of an “environment that encourages discussion, dialogue, and debate, one that allows for the expression of a diversity of voices, including those that are marginalized and have been historically excluded.”

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These freedoms are not a licence for hate or discriminatory speech

Racist, discriminatory, and hateful speech are never acceptable: “[U]nder no circumstances can a person hide behind freedom of expression, or academic freedom to justify such speech.”

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Importance of context and preparation

Faculty members in positions of authority are encouraged to reflect on:

  • ways to address certain topics, including words used and timing
  • learning objectives and the relationship of trust they wish to build or maintain with their students
  • strategies, such as preparing their audience and explaining their pedagogical choices

As a student, what can I expect from faculty, staff, my fellow students and the rest of the University community?

As a student, in addition to the protections guaranteed under federal and provincial legislation, you have rights that are protected by Policy 130 — Student Rights and Responsible Conduct. This means that you have, among others, the following rights:

  • To be treated with respect and dignity and without harassment or discrimination.
  • To bring forward a concern about another member of the University community without fear of reprisal for having voiced your concern, and to have that concern looked into and followed-up on as appropriate.
  • To participate in free expression, the free exchange of ideas and debate in an academic environment, in fair debates, peaceful assemblies and demonstrations and lawful picketing.
  • To express your views freely and publicly, including criticism of the University.

Under the same policy, you also have responsibilities that include:

  • Treating others with respect
  • Contributing to a learning, work and living University environment in which respect, civility, diversity, opportunity, and inclusiveness are valued.
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Other questions (FAQ)