Tag Archives: censorship

McGill University mangles academic freedom

McGill University in Montreal. Robert Cutts, Creative Commons

March 25, 2017

I recently experienced a moment of cosmic irony.  I had just learned that Andrew Potter, a former editor of the Ottawa Citizen, had “resigned” as head of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal, when I received an email from McGill touting that another of their own, Karina Gould, is the youngest female cabinet minister in Canadian history, as Minister of Democratic Institutions.

How sad that Gould won’t be able to include her alma mater in her new area of expertise.

“Resigned”  is such a polite word for Potter being forced out. It occurred after an editorial he wrote for Canada’s Maclean’s magazine that enraged many Québécois.

All its denials to the contrary, and its pledge that “academic freedom is a foundational principle of McGill University,” are only so much equine excretion. In cases like that of Potter, actions speak louder than words. McGill’s actions do not speak of an institution that cares about academic freedom.

Potter’s sin – offending Quebec provincial political, media and chattering classes – is hardly a sin at all.

He wrote an opinion for Maclean’s magazine that criticized the lack of civil culture in Quebec, for want of a better term, after hundreds of motorists were left stranded on Highway 13 in Montreal after a recent snow storm. His opinion piece received much criticism, which is fine. As a former journalist, I’m sure Potter was used to that. Anyone who writes an opinion piece does so with the knowledge that it’s not going to make everyone happy, and will probably make some people mad. (I could write an entire column alone on the things I’ve been called and the people I’ve made angry with things I’ve written over the years.)

McGill, however, panicked when it realized that provincial politicians were angry. First it released a tweet saying that Potter’s views were not those of the university. Then Potter, obviously under pressure from higher ups, apologized for the piece (a mistake in my books), saying he “went too far.”

This apology was not enough for the potentates at McGill it seems. On Thursday Potter stepped down as head of the Institute, a position he had only held for one year, although it appears he will be “allowed” to continue teaching at McGill.

This smacks of a professor being told what to do. I imagine the conversation might have gone something like this.: “If you resign we will let you keep on teaching here. But we’re too afraid of provincial politicians and the backlash in the francophone tabloid media to let you remain as head of the Institute. If you do it this way, it won’t make us look like we caved so quickly, when we should have been standing up to protect your right to be offensive or even wrong.”

Perhaps even more puzzling to me was the comment by a fellow academic at McGill who opposed what Potter had done, who said that while Potter was a great scholar, the opinion piece was not “product of great scholarship.” No kidding. It was an opinion piece in a popular magazine. It was not meant to be “scholarship.”

Let’s be blunt about what really happened here. Potter was a victim of Canada’s two solitudes. He is an English-speaking Canadian criticizing the culture of a majority French-speaking province.  The province’s francophone political and media culture took exception to what was written and demanded a pound of flesh, which McGill helped them acquire.

Academic freedom was the ultimate loser.

Academics need to interact more with the world at large. If they have to worry about watching everything they say, or face dismissal from their institutions, then free speech at Canadian colleges and universities is on its way to the scrap heap.


Copyright Tom Regan 2017

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Further reading: 

Andrew Potter’s column in Maclean’s: How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise — 
The issues that led to the shutdown of a Montreal highway that left drivers stranded go beyond mere political dysfunction, March 20, 2017:  http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/how-a-snowstorm-exposed-quebecs-real-problem-social-malaise/

CBC report: Andrew Potter resigns from McGill post after Maclean’s essay on Quebec
Resignation from Institute for the Study of Canada prompts questions about academic freedom
By Benjamin Shingler, CBC News Posted: Mar 23, 2017 10:48 AM ET

Why Andrew Potter lost his ‘dream job’ at McGill, by , Macleans.ca: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/why-andrew-potter-lost-his-dream-job-at-mcgill/

Andrew Potter writes at In Due Course, A Canadian Public Affairs blog: http://induecourse.ca/

Andrew Potter’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/jandrewpotter?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor


Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 



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Facebook Feels Heat of Controversies

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook attends a session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/File Photo

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook attends a session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/File Photo

By Kristina Cooke, Dan Levine and Dustin Volz 
Fall, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After Facebook’s removal of an iconic Vietnam war photo stirred an international uproar in September, the social network’s executives quickly backtracked and cleared its publication.

But the image – showing a naked Vietnamese girl burned by napalm – had previously been used in training sessions as an example of a post that should be removed, two former Facebook employees told Reuters.

Trainers told content-monitoring staffers that the photo violated Facebook policy, despite its historical significance, because it depicted a naked child, in distress, photographed without her consent, the employees told Reuters.

The social network has taken great pains to craft rules that can be applied uniformly with minimal discretion. The reversal on the war photo, however, shows how Facebook’s top executives sometimes overrule company policy and its legions of low- and mid-level content monitors.

Facebook has often insisted that it is a technology company – not a media company – but an elite group of at least five senior executives regularly directs content policy and makes editorial judgment calls, particularly in high-profile controversies, eight current and former Facebook executives told Reuters.

One of those key decision-makers – Justin Osofsky, who runs the community operations division – wrote a Facebook post acknowledging that the removal of the war photo was a “mistake.”

“Sometimes,” he wrote, “the global and historical significance of a photo like ‘Terror of War’ outweighs the importance of keeping nudity off Facebook.”

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Facebook spokeswoman Christine Chen declined to comment on the company’s use of the photo in training sessions.

Facebook has long resisted calls to publicly detail its policies and practices on censoring postings. That approach has drawn criticism from users who have had content removed and free-speech advocates, who cite a lack of transparency and a lack of an appeals process for many content decisions.

At the same time, some governments and anti-terror groups are pressuring the company to remove more posts they consider offensive or dangerous.


Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management, is interviewed by Reuters in Washington DC February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, is interviewed by Reuters in Washington DC February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

The current and former Facebook executives, most of them speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in detail how complaints move through the company’s content-policing apparatus. The toughest calls, they said, rise to an elite group of executives.

Another of the key decision-makers is Global Policy Chief Monika Bickert, who helped rule on the fracas over the war photo.

“That was one we took a hard look at, and we decided it definitely belonged on the site,” said Bickert, a former federal prosecutor.

She declined to elaborate on the decision-making process.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg followed up with an apology to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who had posted the photo on her own account after Facebook removed it from others in her country.

In addition to Sandberg, Osofsky and Bickert, executives involved in sensitive content issues include Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Washington-based government relations chief; and Elliot Schrage, the vice president for public policy and communications.

All five studied at Harvard, and four of them have both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the elite institution. All but Sandberg hold law degrees. Three of the executives have longstanding personal ties to Sandberg.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard drop-out, occasionally gets involved with content controversies, Bickert said.

These executives also weigh in on content policy changes meant to reflect shifting social context and political sensitivities around the world, current and former executives said.

Facebook officials said the five people identified by Reuters were not the only ones involved in high-level content decisions.

“Facebook has a broad, diverse and global network involved in content policy and enforcement, with different managers and senior executives being pulled in depending on the region and the issue at hand,” Chen said.

Chen declined to name any other executives who were involved in content policy.


The company’s reticence to explain censorship decisions has drawn criticism in many countries around the globe.

Last month, Facebook disabled the accounts of editors at two of the most widely read Palestinian online publications, Shehab News Agency and Quds. In keeping with standard company practice, Facebook didn’t publicly offer a reason for the action or pinpoint any content it considered inappropriate.

The company told Reuters that the removal was simply an error.

Some Palestinian advocacy groups and media outlets condemned the shutdowns as censorship stemming from what they described as Facebook’s improper alliance with the Israeli government.

Israel’s government has pushed Facebook to block hundreds of pages it believes incite violence against Jews, said Noam Sela, spokesman for Israeli cabinet Minister Gilad Erdan.

Sela said the Israeli government “had a connection” at Facebook to handle complaints but declined to elaborate on the relationship.

“It’s not working as well as we would like,” Sela said. “We have more work to do to get Facebook to remove these pages.”

Ezz al-Din al-Akhras, a Quds supervisor, said that Facebook’s head of policy in the Middle East had gotten in touch after the uproar over the shutdowns and that three of four suspended accounts were restored.

“We hope the Facebook campaign of suspending and removing Palestinian accounts will stop,” he said. “We do not practice incitement; we are only conveying news from Palestine to the world.”

Facebook said the restoration of the accounts was not a response to complaints. It declined to comment on whether top executives were involved.

The company has cited technological glitches in other recent cases where content was removed, then restored, including the takedown of a video that showed the aftermath of a Minneapolis police shooting.

Chen declined to explain the glitch.

She said the company was reviewing its appeals process in response to public feedback. Facebook currently allows appeals of company actions involving entire profiles set up by people or institutions, or full pages on those profiles, but not for individual posts.


To manage the huge volume of content complaints – more than a million a day – the company employs a multi-layered system. It starts with automated routing of complaints to content-policing teams in Dublin, Hyderabad, Austin and Menlo Park, who make initial rulings, current and former executives said.

These low-level staffers and contractors consult a thick rulebook that interprets the comparatively spare “community standards” that Facebook customers are asked to follow. The company trains front-line monitors to follow rules and use as little discretion as possible.

When a removal sparks more complaints, regional managers function as a mid-level appeals court. Continuing controversy could then push the issue to top U.S. executives.

Senior executives also weigh in on policy updates. Osofsky and Kaplan, for instance, wrote a blog post last week, in response to “continued feedback” on content removals, explaining that the company would start weighing news value more heavily in deciding whether to block content.

In an earlier post, responding to the Napalm-girl controversy, Osofsky said Facebook’s policies usually work well, but not always.

“In many cases, there’s no clear line between an image of nudity or violence that carries global and historic significance and one that doesn’t,” Osofsky wrote.

The Vietnam war photo – depicting horrors suffered by a girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc – was first removed from an account in Norway by a front-line monitor.

In protest, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten printed the image on its front page and posted it on Facebook, which removed it. That prompted the prime minister to post the photo – only to have Facebook remove it again.

Facebook then issued a statement defending the action, saying it was “difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.”

The next day, executives reversed the call, with Sandberg telling the prime minister: “Even with clear standards, screening millions of posts on a case-by-case basis every week is challenging.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Joseph Menn in San Francisco, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Brian Thevenot)

Related on F&O:

Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race, by Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr., ProPublica

Imagine if, during America’s Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers. That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays. The ubiquitous social network not only allows advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “Ethnic Affinities.” Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.


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Islam, blasphemy and free speech: a surprisingly modern conflict

Tomb of 13 Century poet Rumi in Konya, Turkey. Photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

“It might be shocking for many to look back at the words of 13th-century Muslim scholar Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, who had a strong theological and jurisprudential background,” writes Ali Mamouri. “He said: “Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved! In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.” Above, Rumi’s tomb in Konya, Turkey. Photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

ALI MAMOURI, Australian Catholic University 
January 10, 2015

From the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie to the attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the phenomenon of anti-blasphemy actions continues to be prominent in the Muslim world.

At first glance, the problem appears to be quite simple. For many years, there has been much talk about the conflicts between blasphemy and free speech within Islam. Some go further and argue about the “intrinsic hostility between two civilisations: Islam and Europe”, as the philosopher Talal Asad puts it.

It is quite easy to say that Islam suffers from a lack of tolerance and that Muslims are anti-freedom, anti-democracy, pro-despotism and pro-fanaticism. However, this generalisation ignores not only the number of branches of Islam and diversity of views among Muslims, but also the sociopolitical foundation of the problem.

Asad highlighted the big difference between the notion of talking against the religion in Christianity and Islam. It is difficult to find a specific idea rooted in the Christian historical background of blasphemy in the history of Islam.

However, there are a variety of equivalents that each overlaps a part of blasphemy. The most commonly used phrase by Muslims today is “isā’ah”, which has a range of meanings, including “insult, harm and offence”. But this term is not associated with a certain jurisprudential punishment in a way that makes all Muslims feel obliged to attack the actors.

Therefore, many writers throughout different parts of Islamic history have criticised Islamic belief, including the prophet Muhammad and the Quran, without facing persecution. A quick look at the books about sects and creeds in Islam shows a great variety of discussions and debates between Muslims and non-Muslims about the essential parts of Islam. Many include sarcastic language.

For instance, when defending his non-belief in religions, renowned Arab philosopher Abul al-Ala al-Ma’arri said, “If you ask my religion I would say I am not dumb.”

Ibn al-Rawandi also dedicated sections of his books to countering the Quran in Baghdad. Furthermore, in the contemporary era, Iraqi writer and poet Maarouf al-Rasafi disputed the religious aspect of the prophet Muhammad’s life in his book The Muhamadiyan Personality.

The reality is that the persecution of blasphemers as it is done currently is a very recent phenomenon. Generally, one could say that the Rushdie fatwa was the beginning of this trend.

The founders of Political Islam are known as the innovators of this trend. That is why we can see many secular scholars, writers and poets at the start of the 20th century writing against Islam in many different dimensions, such as Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, who is known for advocating positivist philosophy in the Arab world, and Najib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The notion of religious actions is more problematic than is popularly supposed. It is not merely a divine spiritual matter which is separated from social political actors. Rather, it is nested within and shaped by other human dimensions.

As a result, the sociopolitical background can change any religion – to be more tolerant or more fanatical, for example. Sociologist Bryan S. Turner describes this situation in Christian society, “Given the growth of parliamentary institutions, welfare legislation and commitment to egalitarian ideology, it is small wonder that contemporary Christians cannot accept a description of God as an autocrat. Jesus, once our lord and master, has become Superstar.”

This process took a long time in western societies to become today’s accepted nature of great tolerance and co-existence. The west paid the price through centuries of religious, sectarian and political wars.

Meanwhile, the status of the Muslim world has declined continuously in the contemporary period. This is due to various reasons, including ongoing political instability, the failure to build a state of institutions and a real civil society and destructive imperialist interventions.

Western colonial powers handed the Middle East to a series of tyrannical governments. Failed attempts at building a nation-state have led to the rise of Chauvinism and military regimes which mostly have been supported by the great western powers.

The recent popular revolutions have resulted in the rise of criminal Salafi gangs. Many were supported by the west for different reasons, such as confronting the Soviet Union in al-Qaeda’s case, or anti-Israel regimes in Islamic State’s case.

It might be shocking for many to look back at the words of 13th-century Muslim scholar Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, who had a strong theological and jurisprudential background. He said: “Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved! In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.”

One can see pluralistic thoughts, such as the aforementioned works of many Muslim scholars in the past, which have been influencing Muslim societies widely.

A long distance has passed to see Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in place of al-Rumi, but this underscores the argument that mainstream Muslims remain against the barbaric actions of fundamentalists. It must not be forgotten that many Muslims are suppressed in their countries for the same reasons that Charlie Hebdo was attacked.

Let’s help Muslims to represent “a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, compatible with respect for human rights and peaceful co-existence”, as Pope Francis said in a recent phone call with Iraqi Christians.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Ali Mamouri

Ali Mamouri

 Ali Mamouri is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University.   A researcher and writer in the Middle East religious and cultural crises, particularly Iraq and Iran, he raduated from PhD study in Islamic Philosophy & Theology in 2008 and Master in Islamic Philosophy in 2000. He is a columnist at Al-Monitor, writes for Iraq and Iran pulses, and focuses on religious and cultural issues.

He  does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

You can read his bio on his page at The Conversation.






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Weibo, the Free Market, and Censorship

Weibo, “China’s Twitter,” has begun offering shares on one of America’s free market stock exchanges. But unlike in the United States, where freedom of expression is protected, in China social media companies rely on censorship for their business model. Weibo’s regulatory disclosures reveal a company’s balancing act between censoring too much and too little.

An excerpt of the ProPublica report, in F&O’s Dispatches/Money section:

As of last week, investors can purchase shares of Weibo, sometimes called “China’s Twitter,” on NASDAQ. The company’s regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission reveals details not previously known about Weibo’s censorship apparatus…

Weibo, like all Internet publishers and providers in China, is prohibited from letting their users display content that is obscene, fraudulent, defamatory or otherwise illegal under Chinese laws. The content prohibitions also forbid material that “impairs the national dignity of China,” “is reactionary,” “superstitious,” or “socially destabilizing.”

As required under SEC regulations, the company must list for investors potential risks that might affect its share price. Weibo is up front about the risk the Chinese government’s regulation of content poses to its ability so succeed. “Failure to [censor] may subject us to liabilities and penalties and may even result in the temporary blockage or complete shutdown of our online operations.”

Click here for the full story, Weibo IPO Reveals a Company Struggling With Censorship. (Free public access.)




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