McGill Administration, SSMU responds to University’s low ranking on journalistic freedoms index

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In October 2014, McGill was placed poorly on the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ annual ranking of free expression at Canadian universities. The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was also ranked as one of the  10 worst university unions.The JCCF, a non-partisan independent group, looked at the conducts of 52 Canadian universities, ranking them for their freedom of expression. The JCCF has faced criticism for being biased in the past years by SSMU executives and members of the McGill administration.

According to the JCCF website, the evaluation for freedom of expression is rated on various aspects that demonstrate the university does not censor free speech, including having a public stance of commitment to free speech on campus, an anti-discrimination policy that does not censor controversial or unpopular speech, and an anti-disruption policy that prohibits the interference or blocking of free speech.

Dean of Students André Costopoulos explained that freedom of expression was not an issue at McGill, saying that the JCCF rankings ran counter to his experience at the university.

“I see many examples different events, all from different perspectives,” Costopoulos said. “I see professors, students and staff with different backgrounds. I think McGill is undoubtedly a place where all these people can freely express themselves.”

Michael Kennedy, spokesperson for the JCCF, expanded on the specific events that justify the low ranking of the institution and its student union.

“The SSMU earns an F for two reasons: [SSMU] told [McGill Friends of Israel] that they had to change the name of their planned event “Israel-a-Party” because SSMU executives felt it made ‘a mockery and/or trivialization of various oppressions,’” Kennedy said. “SSMU also made one of its executives apologize and attend sensitivity training for having shared a joke online.”

SSMU Vice-President University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan explained that the JCCF and the SSMU do not share the same definition of free expression, and that SSMU’s priorities were to ensure that its members felt safe.

“Some of the practices that come under heavy criticism in the report include SSMU’s actions against the distribution of a graphic anti-abortion material, material that compared the abortion to [the] Holocaust,” she said. “As a student society, we have a responsibility to make sure our members can feel safe and respected on their campus.  That means taking a stance on the distribution of graphic anti-abortion material on campus and creating a safer space for our constituents.”

Kennedy pointed to the university’s policies and legal action against students seeking information as reasons why McGill administration received a D rating overall.

“The University gets straight D’s for questionable language in its harassment policies and its Provision Protocol on Protests and Demonstrations, for its handling of the McGill Leaks publication of pre-released information, and for failing to prevent the disruption of a lecture display campus in 2009, ‘Echoes of the Holocaust,’” Kennedy said.

Costopoulos said he didn’t believe the Provision Protocol restricted the freedom of expression at McGill.

“[The protocol] gives a clear idea of how the university might respond if there is a obstruction of its activities,” he said. “I don’t share the concerns regarding the language of the protocol because it can’t oversee the charter of rights of students, which guarantees freedom of expression.”

Stewart-Kanigan said she did not want to minimize the report, saying that some of the issues highlighted on McGill’s conduct regarding freedom of expression are potentially legitimate.

“I do think investigative journalism serves as a right to check the administration as it does for the community,” she said.

Stewart-Kanigan also pointed to incidents such as McGill’s injunction against students from Demilitarize McGill making Access to Information (ATI) requests as areas that should have been highlighted in the report.

“[The injunction] was eventually rejected by the courts, but the fact that McGill did seek legal backing for seeking information requests from students is certainly an infringement on free speech and the right to a critical press at our university,” Stewart-Kanigan said. “That was not highlighted in the report and would have been useful to highlight. But the focus of the report being on this anti-safer spaces kind of line of freedom is not something I am as concerned about as faction at free speech on our campus.”

However, Dean of Students André Constopoulos denied that McGill’s actions demonstrated any censorship.

“This was an intellectual property dispute, not a case of freedom of expression,” Constopoulos said. “McGill sought the appropriate actions in cases of confidentiality.”