Monday, January 12, 2009

A conspiracy theorist in the classroom...

Each semester, in the undergraduate class that I teach, I tackle the question of how teachers should express their views in the classroom. One of the ways in which I break the ice on this topic is by introducing a court case that drew significant media attention in Canada in the 1980s: the Keegstra case.

From 1968 until 1982, Jim Keegstra (pictured left) taught social studies in the small town of Eckville, Alberta. In his classes, he taught that the Jews were responsible for virtually every significant negative event in Western history, and he also alleged that the Jewish conspiracy was still active and was seeking to bring about a "one world government." He expected his students to reproduce these views in their essays, and they were punished with low marks when they did not. In December of 1982, Keegstra was finally removed from teaching and, in 1984, he was charged with promoting hatred. He was convicted in the initial trial, but the case was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, where he lost his final appeal in 1990.

The fact that Keegstra was a conspiracy theorist is not all that remarkable; a search of the internet will reveal that there are a considerable number of individuals who currently hold similar views. Yet one thing that is particularly interesting about this case is the high degree of success that Keegstra had. He was a well-liked teacher and a popular figure in the community, and, in 1978, he became the mayor of Eckville. Even after he was charged, many of the students and teachers at Eckville High actively supported him. Five of his fellow teachers and several of his former students testified in his defence at the trial, and a majority of the students at the school signed a petition that called for him to be reinstated. Keegstra's replacement in the social studies class, Dick Hoeksema, encountered resistance when he tried to teach mainstream views--evidently, some of Keegstra's old students felt that their former teacher had been a victim of the grand conspiracy in which he had persuaded them to believe.

Another notable aspect of the case was the jurisprudence that it produced. Keegstra was charged under section 281.2 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits inciting "hatred against any identifiable group." In court, Keegstra's lawyer argued that this law infringed upon Keegstra's rights under Section 2(b) of the Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which holds that "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression" is a fundamental freedom. Interestingly, the Supreme Court of Canada actually agreed with this argument--they held this law did, in fact, contravene Keegstra's right to free expression. However, the Charter contains an important qualfier, Section 1, which reads as follows:
"The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."
The majority of the court ruled that the laws concerning promotion of hatred were, in fact, justified under Section 1 as "reasonable limits" to the rights granted under Section 2(b). (Notably, Section 1 may strike some American readers as strange since it allows a significant degree of limitation to be imposed upon the other rights specified in the charter.)

For the most part, in my teaching, I have used the Keegstra case as a device to get the students talking about the issue of what teachers are permitted to say. However, the case also raises some more significant questions:

1. Given the high degree of success that Keegstra had, should we be more concerned/vigilant about the possibility of students being indoctrinated?

2. The court maintained that teachers do, in fact, have a right to free speech that can be exercised in the classroom. Obviously, in the case of hate speech, that right is limited by Section 1. But can other kinds of teacher speech be limited? What, exactly, is the scope of this right?

In 2009, the Keegstra case seems to have fallen out of the popular consciousness for the most part (even in Canada), so I thought that it would be interesting to revisit it here. Perhaps some of you may be interested in using it in your own classrooms. If so, here are some references that you might find useful:

David Bercuson and Douglas Wertheimer, A Trust Betrayed: The Keegstra Affair (Toronto: Doubleday, 1985.

Supreme Court of Canada, R. v. Keegstra

William Hare, "Limiting the Freedom of Expression: The Keegstra Case," Canadian Journal of Education 15 (4): 375-389 (accessible through JSTOR)

Steve Mertl and John Ward, Keegstra: The Trial, The Issues, The Consequences (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985).


Amy Shuffelton said...

Very interesting case. I was just reading an article in today's NY Times about a pediatrician contesting another set of conspiracy theories: the idea that vaccinations cause autism. This, of course, is a more widely accepted conspiracy theory than "the Jews are controlling the world" -- more widely accepted, at least, among educated young people interested in teaching and children.

It would be interesting to discuss these theories in tandem. To me, both the idea that Jews are out to control the universe and that vaccinations cause autism are dangerous, pernicious, and thoroughly lacking evidence. To some of our students, there might be a difference. Last semester, some of my students agreed that it was reasonable to believe that human beings have been abducted by space aliens. What makes a theory a conspiracy theory? At what point is an idea too outlandish for the classroom?

Thought-provoking case indeed.

Kevin Currie said...

I have been intrigued by the Keegstra case and how issues it raises are also raised in the "Intelligent Design" cases cropping up all over the US.

In particular, your third question is an interesting one:

2. The court maintained that teachers do, in fact, have a right to free speech that can be exercised in the classroom. Obviously, in the case of hate speech, that right is limited by Section 1. But can other kinds of teacher speech be limited? What, exactly, is the scope of this right?

I think Stanley Fish hits the nail on the head in his new book "Save the World on Your Own Tim." Free speech rights and academic freedom rights are different. Teachers are employees of their school district and should be teaching from its curricula; while they may speak in class over and beyond the curricula, this speech is not protected as any sort of academic freedom. Just as free speech rights can be limited (not diminished) via employer-employee contracts (one may be justly sent home if one wears political protest attire against an employer's will), teachers' can only say things above and beyond the curricula at their own peril. (Everyone has a right to say as they please, but not to a job).