Last Wednesday, Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi released his long-awaited Report of the Open Forum on Free Expression and Peaceful Assembly. Following a series of open forums, the report sought to solicit community input on the meaning and scope of peaceful assembly on campus.
The initiative was commissioned by Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum in February 2012, following Dean of Law Daniel Jutras’s recommendation in his report on the riot police presence on campus last Nov. 10.
We are pleased to hear that Munroe-Blum has accepted all three of Manfredi’s recommendations. Among other things, Manfredi called for a clarification of the word “disruption” in the Code of Student Conduct, a revision to the provisional protocol enacted following the second James Administration occupation last February, and a change to McGill Security Services’ training program.
[pullquote]Students have a right to a Student Code of Conduct that outlines what is acceptable behaviour on campus…[/pullquote]
All too often, however, real action in a university setting is unnecessarily prolonged by discussion upon discussion, and recommendation upon recommendation. Compared to codes of conduct at other universities, the provisional protocol is far less tolerant in its acceptance of what constitutes a legal demonstration on campus, and severely limits free expression. The provision should be removed immediately, and the university’s policy on demonstrations should temporarily be reverted to the policies outlined in the Code of Student Conduct (as it was prior to February). At the same time, the administration should strike a working group—composed of varied community members, from students to faculty to members of non-academic associations—without delay, to further refine the Code of Student Conduct. As attendees of Manfredi’s forum have pointed out, it is important to reconcile diverse community viewpoints on the boundaries of free speech. The provisional protocol in question was devised without any consultation, and that mistake should not be repeated.
Manfredi’s report rightly states that it is difficult to balance one person’s freedom of assembly with another person’s right to peaceful study or access to university resources. That said, students have a right to a Student Code of Conduct that outlines what is acceptable behaviour on campus, and that is applied fairly to all alleged transgressions. The provisional protocol does not meet this criteria.
As the third recommendation acknowledges, the role of security agents on campus needs to be clarified for the McGill community as a whole. McGill Security Services’ primary mandate needs to be the protection of students—security agents are responsible first and foremost for our safety. They are not law enforcement, but are there to support university activities. Manfredi’s report is correct in asking that all agents understand how to apply the Code of Student Conduct and understand how the disciplinary process works. However, there also needs to be more widespread communication and understanding of their role as university employees who students can trust to call on for help.
The mission of the modern university extends beyond formal teaching and learning; it is a place where expression of differing viewpoints is not only permitted, but encouraged. In its willingness to commission—and accept the recommendations of—Manfredi’s report, the administration has shown that it sees the value in making place for peaceful protest and dissent. The time for discussion and debate draws to a close. Now we need action.