John Finnis and the Law Society

Would the Law Society of Ontario punish a scholar for failing to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion? What about those who defended such a scholar’s academic freedom?

One of the less appreciated issues with the Law Society of Ontario’s demand that its members produce “statements of principles” acknowledging a purported “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in [one’s] behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public” is that it is inimical to academic freedom and the freedom of expression of scholars. This problem is neatly illustrated, however, by the story of the latest attack on an academic who happens to dissent from politically correct views.

The academic in question is John Finnis, “a giant of jurisprudence” in the words of Jeremy Waldron, another such giant himself. Robert George has posted a fairly detailed review of Finnis’s oeuvre (drawn from published work) over at Mirror of Justice (detailed, but still incomplete ― there is, understandably, no mention there of the not insignificant role Professor Finnis played in the patriation of the Canadian constitution; fortunately, he has told the story himself). But the most important point for the present purposes is elided in Professor George’s description: as Brian Leiter put it on his blog, Professor Finnis “has written foolish and sometimes quite ugly things about gay people for years”. And so, as the Guardian reports, “[m]ore than 400 people have signed a petition calling for [Professor] Finnis to be removed from teaching”. Now, there is no allegation that Professor Finnis has actually discriminated against a specific student. The complaint is based entirely on his scholarship which, however distasteful one might find it, is widely regarded as formidable and important ― if also, in many people’s view, profoundly misguided.

Being a generally acknowledged giant and not just an unknown graduate student who can be bullied into submission or chased out of the academy without anyone paying attention, Professor Finnis has been defended by other prominent scholars. Les Green, writing at his blog Semper Viridis, points out that “[t]o fire someone from an academic post solely on the basis that he defends false or repugnant views is a clear violation of academic freedom”. Professor Leiter use stronger language, writing that the students demanding to be got rid of Professor Finnis “disgrace themselves and their university”. Professor Waldron put it best:

The campaign to have John Finnis removed is preposterous. His views on many things-torture, assisted suicide, sexuality-are uncongenial to some of us … . But defending & elaborating those views doesn’t amount to discrimination[.]

I agree with all this (and, just for the record, I also find Professor Finnis’s views on many things uncongenial, to put it mildly). And so, to come back to the reason for this post, I have a couple of questions for the Law Society of Ontario.

First, if Professor Finnis were a member, would you disbar him? Now, I suspect that he would not in fact conform to the Statement of Principles requirement, much like I and many others, and you’d go after him for that. But suppose he’d ticked the box through oversight. I think it’s fair to say that, whatever their scholarly qualities and interest as an intellectual foil, Professor Finnis’s writings don’t do much for equality, diversity, and inclusion. Would you sanction him for failing to promote these values? Do you think this is compatible with his academic freedom?

And second, what would you make of people like Professors Leiter, Waldron, and Green, assuming that they had not objected to the Statement of Principles requirement? Would you deem speaking out in defence of the academic freedom of a scholar whose work opposes (certain kinds of) equality, diversity, and inclusion a violation of one’s Statement of Principles commitments? After all, if one understands equality, diversity, and inclusion along demographic rather than intellectual lines, as you pretty obviously do, it is at least arguable that defending a scholar with Professor Finnis’s views opposes rather than promotes them. Would you sanction scholars who undertake such a defence because they conclude that, in this instance, academic freedom is a more pressing concern than equality, diversity, and inclusion, on the basis that they fail to “promote” them “generally”? Do you think that would be compatible with academic freedom?

The law society might, I suppose, point to its now-mostly anodyne explanation of what the Statement of Principles requirement is supposedly about, which is largely about complying with anti-discrimination legislation and of no real relevance to academics. Yet the explanation is not the requirement. It has replaced a previous version that spoke of “demonstrat[ing] personal valuing of equality, diversity and inclusion”… and might again be replaced by something that would actually make sense of the never-retracted demand that lawyers ― including lawyers who are academics rather than practitioners ― “promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally”, and not only within their professional relationships with clients, employees, and the like.

In New Zealand, universities are required ― by statute ― to “to develop intellectual independence” in their students, and to “accept a role as critic and conscience of society”. A different provision “declare[s] to be the intention of Parliament … that academic freedom … be preserved and enhanced”, which includes “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. I’m not sure if there is an equivalent legislative framework in Ontario, but at any rate these seem to me to be sound moral guidelines ― principles to abide by, if you like ― for any free society that values learning and scholarship. I’d say that, for an institution that is statutorily required “to protect the public interest”, the Law Society of Ontario shows very little respect indeed for the fact that the public interest requires the existence of people and institutions capable of independent thought, however far astray they may sometimes go in the process of exercising this faculty.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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