ARE ACADEMICS more equal than the rest of us? Do they, by dint of erudition, enjoy privileges, like the lordly pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm, to a special kind of free speech that no one else enjoys?
Remember Animal Farm? In Orwell's allegorical novel, the pigs became the farmyard overlords after the overthrow of the farmer-oppressor and a brief period of egalitarianism. "All animals are equal," say the porcine elite, "but some animals are more equal than others."
Which leads us to the newly revived flap over St. Francis Xavier professor Shiraz Dossa, PhD. He's the academic blasted in the media and by university bosses last December for attending and speaking at a controversial Holocaust conference in Tehran.
Last week, Prof. Dossa fought back in an essay in the respected Literary Review of Canada. It's a scathing attack on Canadian liberals, the media and the administration of his university.
Depending on whom you believe, the Tehran conference was either a Holocaust-deniers' hootenanny or an academic reconsideration of the Holocaust and its significance in modern politics.
Prof. Dossa admits that some Holocaust deniers attended, but suggests they were ignored. I believe him, since no serious researcher would deny that millions of Jews were killed in a systematic campaign of genocide by Nazi Germany.
And researchers do disagree on the meaning of the Holocaust in contemporary life. Prof. Dossa's view, in part, is that Jewish propagandists have successfully painted the Holocaust as the greatest tragedy in human history, thereby diminishing the significance of other outrages and legitimizing Zionism and the state of Israel.
Yet Prof. Dossa himself isn't up-front on facts about the conference. He claims it was sponsored by an independent academy, the Iranian Institute of Political and International Studies. He fails to mention that the institute is a branch of Iran's foreign ministry.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki opened the conference with a speech inviting new interpretations of the Holocaust and equating Zionism to Nazism as "a political, racist ideology."
Despite these facts about the conference, Prof. Dossa says he's being singled out for criticism because he's a Muslim and that his detractors are just plain ignorant.
He claims the school set off "a small Spanish Inquisition … to denounce a St. F.X. Muslim professor." The witch hunt was promulgated "by two Jewish professors and the Christian chair of the political science department."
So in his interpretation, Jews and Christians have ganged up on a Muslim to deny him his academic freedom. And not only that: "Christian boys" writing in the national media also joined in the campaign to suppress his time-honoured rights, he says.
Prof. Dossa knows his writings and opinions will cause controversy. He also knows and asserts that he has every right to hold controversial views. And he's perfectly right about that. He can think anything he wants and say whatever he wants to anyone who will listen.
But he shouldn't think no one will react. He shouldn't think that St. F.X. or any other university is operating in some kind of hermetically sealed intellectual vacuum, where statements uttered by academics have a sacred existence beyond questioning.
As someone who depends on the sanctity of free speech to do my job, I have to defend Prof. Dossa's right to speak. Where we part ways is his notion that his academic standing gives him carte blanche to offend his employer and, by extension, the students at St. F.X.
It's a bit similar to Prof. Peter March's ill-considered foray into the anti-Islam cartoon issue last year. Prof. March, who teaches philosophy at Saint Mary's, offended Muslim students and many others by insisting on displaying cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.
Like Prof. Dossa, Prof. March claimed complete impunity to do so because he works at a university. And like Dossa, he's right in theory, wrong in practice.
Bullheaded professors are a problem for universities competing for students and funding. Part of the $6,300 tuition per student at St. F.X. goes to Prof. Dossa's salary. Taxpayers kick in too. Students and taxpayers are not obliged to be mute about what goes on in these public institutions.
Schools are also trying to raise money for facilities and renovations. But in the Dossa-March perspective, faculty shouldn't have to even consider that.
Universities will always court and tolerate controversy. But they have to recognize that they are subject to skepticism and even condemnation like the rest of us. They're animals too. They aren't more equal.
Dan Leger is director of news content for The Chronicle Herald. The opinions expressed here are his own.