|Year||University Policies||University Practices||Student Union Policies||Student Union Practices|
GRADE EXPLANATION: The University earns an A for its policies. There is a clearly stated commitment to free speech. The university has an anti-disruption policy which prohibits students (and other people) from blocking, obstructing, disrupting or interrupting speech (e.g. events, displays) on campus. The University does not have any speech code. The university does not provide funding and other resources to groups, departments, committees, commissions or other bodies that engage in ideological advocacy. The University earns a D for its practices. The University failed to defend two student groups who were censored by their student union.
McMaster University states that its mission is “the discovery, communication, and preservation of knowledge.” McMaster’s Academic Freedom Statement states:
McMaster University is dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Its members enjoy certain rights and privileges essential to these twin objectives. Central among these rights and privileges is the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seem to them fruitful avenues of inquiry; to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints; and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.
This freedom extends not only to members of the university but to all who are invited to participate in its forum. All members of the University must recognize this fundamental principle and must share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving this central freedom. Behaviour which obstructs free and full discussion, not only of ideas which are safe and accepted but of those which may be unpopular or even abhorrent, vitally threatens the integrity of the University, and cannot be tolerated.
Suppression of academic freedom would prevent the University from carrying out its primary functions. In particular, as an autonomous institution McMaster University is protected from any efforts by the state or its agents to limit or suppress academic freedom. Likewise, neither officers of the University nor private individuals may limit or suppress academic freedom.
The common good of society depends upon the search for knowledge and its free exposition. Academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual; on the contrary, academic freedom makes commitment to a position or course of action possible. Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research and teaching on an honest search for knowledge.
McMaster’s policy, Free Expression, Protest and Dissent, clarifies the University’s stance on disruption of sanctioned campus events by placing restrictions on acceptable forms of dissent:
The right to dissent is the complement of the right to speak, but these rights need not occupy the same forum at the same time. A speaker (whether a member of the University community, invited speaker or performer) is entitled to communicate their message to the audience during their allotted time, and the audience is entitled to hear the message and see the speaker during that time. Individuals or groups engaged in protest or dissent should not substantially interfere with the speaker’s ability to communicate or the audience’s ability to hear and see the speaker.
Noise - Responding vocally to the speaker, spontaneously and temporarily, is generally acceptable, especially if reaction against the speaker is similar in kind and degree to reaction in their favour. Chanting, blowing horns or whistles, or making other sustained or repeated noise in a manner which substantially interferes with the speaker’s communication is not permitted.
Examples of Unacceptable Behaviour
Comment or conduct that constitutes harassment or discrimination, or promotes or incites violence or hate, is not acceptable. Although not intended as an exhaustive list, the following are examples of unacceptable behaviour:
McMaster’s Policy on Student Groups (Recognition, Risk Assessment and Event Planning) states that any group can register to be a club, and any club can book rooms. Section 22 states:
The University will not attempt to monitor or review the activities of a student group recognized under this policy in the normal course of events. It will however investigate complaints or charges that as such a group has acted in a manner that is inconsistent with its constitution or with the requirements of this policy or with any other University policy.
McMaster's Anti-Discrimination Policy states that “discrimination and harassment … are prohibited at McMaster University and constitute punishable offenses under this policy”. Harassment is defined as, “engagement in a course of vexatious comments or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known, to be unwelcome.” Although such a policy could threaten a person's free speech rights, this document takes special care to outline that the Anti-Discrimination Policy “should be read in conjunction with McMaster University's Statement on Academic Freedom” and that:
McMaster University recognizes that as an academic and free community it must uphold its fundamental commitments to academic freedom and to freedom of expression and association. It will maintain an environment in which students and teaching and non- teaching staff can engage in free enquiry and open discussion of all issues.
McMaster University has an Office of Human Rights and Equity Services, which “ensures that the Sexual Harassment Policy, Anti-Discrimination Policy and Accessibility Policy are administered effectively and fairly.”
Both the Anti-Discrimination and Sexual Harassment policies take special care to outline that McMaster’s Academic Freedom Statement should always be upheld. The Sexual Harassment policies and procedures state that:
McMaster University recognises that as an academic and free community it must uphold its fundamental commitments to academic freedom and to freedom of expression and association. It will maintain an environment in which students and teaching and non-teaching staff can engage in free enquiry and open discussion of all issues. The Sexual Harassment Officer, like all other officers of the University, is obliged to uphold academic freedom, and freedom of expression and association.
The Office facilitates mandatory “unconscious bias training” for McMaster faculty who take part in the selection of Canada Research Chairs. The Office also offers voluntary training programs on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for hiring managers, faculty, supervisors, and other faculty and staff at McMaster.
McMaster’s Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities prohibits “engaging in verbal or non-verbal behaviour or communication toward an individual or group which is considered to be intimidating, harassing and/or discriminatory, and in a manner that exceeds the bounds of freedom of expression.”
McMaster University failed to condemn the actions of its student union when, in July 2019, it de-ratified a student group on the basis of its views (see section 4).
On March 17, 2017, a debate took place at McMaster University on the subject of gender identity, political correctness and free expression. The debate, which was to include three McMaster professors and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, was disrupted by students and protestors who used tactics including clanging cowbells, blowing air horns and chanting to drown out Peterson’s remarks. One individual was seen blowing an air horn very close to Peterson's ear. Another person reportedly threw glitter on Peterson's face and suit. Eventually, Dr. Peterson retreated outside the hall, where he continued speaking while standing on a bench.
McMaster University failed to provide adequate security to ensure the debate could proceed as organized. In the week following this incident, McMaster University’s president, Patrick Deane, issued a statement upholding free expression, wherein he stated:
I said in a recent interview with students that the most serious thing I have to do in my role as President is to defend the principle of academic freedom. The freedom to research, consider, discuss and present even the most controversial or potentially divisive issues is a fundamental tenet of academic freedom, and the foundation of the work and mission of the academy. In the same interview, I also made the comment that defending academic freedom is not always easy to do. The events of last Friday surrounding the "Drawing the Line" student-organized event provide a perfect demonstration of this difficulty. The University received multiple communications both before and after the event from individuals and groups writing either in support of or in opposition to the speaker. The University was variously invited to shut down the event, to silence anticipated protests, to make public statements denouncing the speaker, and to make similar statements denouncing those expressing their opposition to the speaker.
As President I chose to do none of those things. The event was framed and organized as a discussion of political correctness and freedom of speech on campus, which I regard as an important and entirely appropriate topic for discussion at an institution of higher learning. The fundamental mission of the University is to provide opportunities for education, both within and beyond the classroom. Taking the opportunity to listen to a speaker, even one with whom one may vehemently disagree, is an important aspect of education and a cornerstone of academic debate. It has not, therefore, been my approach, nor that of this University, to intervene to shut down events, exclude speakers, or prevent discussion of issues, even where controversial topics are under discussion.
In clearly affirming the commitment of this University to protecting the expression of diverse opinions on our campus, I also want to be absolutely unequivocal in expressing our support for the diversity of our campus community, and our commitment to the rights of minority groups, including trans- and gender-non-conforming members of our community, in particular. I am in no doubt that our University, like our society, is only enriched and strengthened by the diversity of people and opinions on our campus. As such, the presence on campus of a speaker who may challenge the rights of any particular group should not be seen as undermining the University’s commitment to inclusivity but merely as an opportunity to explore and debate the topics under discussion.
Indeed, an important aspect of academic freedom is the willingness and ability to engage with and discuss ideas that might be fundamentally opposed to one’s own. It is extremely regrettable that the events of last Friday do not reflect the standard of academic debate that we would aspire to model on our campus but this does not mean that as an institution we should ever seek to limit the right of members of our community and visitors to our campus to engage in peaceful protest. In the event that the tactics employed by such protestors violate the laws of our land, or the codes of conduct of our community, appropriate sanctions can and will be applied, but our commitment to academic freedom requires that, except in the most extreme cases, the cancellation of events, or the exclusion or removal of particular individuals will not be our response.
I would hope that all members of our community are united in our pursuit of knowledge, our belief in the power and importance of education, and our mission to protect the free flow of ideas within an inclusive and respectful environment. As members of the academy, we bear a shared responsibility to reaffirm and uphold the core principles of academic freedom, collegiality, and respect that are fundamental to McMaster and to ensure that our University continues to be a place where respectful debate and discussion can flourish.
GRADE EXPLANATION: The student union earns a D for its policies. The student union does not have an express commitment to free speech on campus; the student union has at least one speech code; the student union’s policies in regard to club certification enable unequal treatment of clubs based on beliefs and opinions; the student union’s rules and regulations for elections and referenda impose unfair restrictions on campaign speech and literature; the student union does not take political positions on issues outside its mandate. The student union earns a F for its practices for censoring two student groups in the 2018-2019 year.
McMaster Student Union (MSU) describes its mandate as follows:
The MSU works to enhance both the academic and extracurricular experience of its members by offering a wide array of resources, services and opportunities to McMaster students and through advocacy of student issues with the university administration and relevant levels of government.
Section 6.1 of the MSU Operation Policy – “Promotions and Advertising” states that advertising must be in good taste: “Good taste advertising shall be defined as that which does not promote violence, substance abuse, oppressive or discriminatory practices, or contravene the McMaster University Anti-Discrimination Policy or the MSU’s Anti-Oppression Policy.”
If a poster is deemed controversial, then the Underground Media & Design staff must go through a checklist to determine whether or not the content is “acceptable”.
Students running for election must abide by the MSU Operation Policy – Promotions and Advertising, thereby placing content-based restrictions on election speech.
The MSU’s Anti-Oppression Policy states:
As a student union, it is our duty to take note of these inequalities in power and hierarchies that exist within the McMaster community, as well as to take action in order to eradicate them. Together, we must work as a community to challenge the social inequality embedded in people’s attitudes and value systems and challenge the social institutions that re-create disempowerment for some and privilege for others. To do so, the McMaster Student Union must act as a catalyst, by sparking individuals to critically analyze their perceptions and assumptions, as well as to recognize the power imbalances that continue to exist on our campus. Let us create a campus of Allies who stand in solidarity with equity-seeking groups. Through our joint efforts, we will work toward the equalization of power relationships and the elimination of all forms of oppression.
The McMaster Student Union does not take official stances on issues outside its mandate.
The Dominion society is a student group at McMaster University. “The independence of Canada as a sovereign nation in its own right, its colonial history, and its British, French and First Nations heritage will be prevailing themes in this club’s activity and pursuits,” the club stated in a cover letter sent to the Student Representative Assembly (SRA), the governing body of the MSU, when it applied for ratified club status on June 23, 2019.
The club’s application was approved in July 2019, along with the applications of over 300 other clubs. On July 24, 2019, MSU President wrote a public letter calling upon the SRA to revoke the Dominion society’s club status, following allegations that members of the club were “associated” with the MacDonald Cultural and Historical Society, an off-campus group describing itself as “a brotherhood of Canadians who hold dear the sympathies of our Founder; that above all else, our nation must be united together under shared bonds of loyalty, strength, perseverance and courage.” Some students accused the MacDonald Society of harbouring white supremacist views because of its use of the Red Ensign, which had been Canada’s official flag until 1965, and its fondness for Canada’s first Prime Minister.
Members of the SRA also raised concerns over the mandate of the club. One member stated that “the celebration of Canada as a sovereign nation in its own right is absolutely false. Canada’s sovereignty is based off the genocide of Indigenous peoples…We have to think about McMaster as a space that we are trying to decolonize.”
On August 13, 2019, the SRA held an emergency meeting and voted to de-ratify the Dominion society.
In March 2019, pro-life students at McMaster University were advised by the McMaster Student Union that they couldn’t display a pro-life sign or anatomically-correct fetus models at a club tabling event.
The Justice Centre became involved immediately, advising the students to continue to use the sign and models, in the face of illegal demands from the student union to cease displaying these materials.
At the tabling event, the students’ display was mobbed and obstructed by students opposed to the students’ message. The Justice Centre advised the students to file complaints to both the University and to the Ontario Government’s new campus free speech Ombudsperson, providing an early test of the government’s commitment to free speech on campus. This case is still ongoing.
In 2017, the McMaster Student Union failed to condemn the failure of the University provide adequate security for a debate on political correctness and free expression.