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Academic freedom is named as one of the Principles of McGill University.
Members of the University community have the right of freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly, which are defined as follows:
Freedom of expression means the right to communicate one’s thoughts, beliefs and opinions, and to comment on any issue, including the right to criticize society at large, and the University itself.
Freedom of association and Freedom of peaceful assembly mean the right to form groups and participate in their activities, and to engage in meetings and demonstrations free from violence and intimidation.
At the same time, these rights are subject to limits established by law and by the rights of others. In particular, there is a need to safeguard other core institutional objectives, including the right of members of the University community to carry out their activities without undue interference, and in a safe environment.
McGill University is committed to upholding these values and these rights.
On a webpage titled “Freedom of Opinion, Expression and Peaceful Assembly”, McGill University outlines their free expression-related policies for students:
Charter of Students' Rights, Articles 25-26
25 - Every student enjoys within the University the freedoms of opinion, of expression and of peaceful assembly.
26 - Every group of students has a right to organize and to promote the interests of its members, provided that the purposes of such group are lawful. Every such group shall also have the right to publicize and hold meetings, to debate any matter and to engage in lawful demonstration.
Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures
5 - Obstruction
No student shall, by action, threat, or otherwise, knowingly obstruct University activities. University activities include but are not limited to, teaching, research, studying, administration, public service, scheduled events and activities.
6 - Picketing and Demonstrations
No student shall, on University property, individually or with a group and in connection with a demonstration, including a rally or picketing:
(a) Knowingly use words which threaten violence or bodily harm to any group or individual in a situation where there is clear and imminent danger of such violence or bodily harm, and whether or not the group or individual thus threatened knows of such threatening words; or
(b) Knowingly use words in a situation of clear and imminent danger that incite others to behaviour that violates any article of this Section.
In their Booking Guidelines, McGill states:
[Security] risk is assessed on an event-by-event basis and could include but is not limited to such factors as the following: expected number of attendees, event location, proximity of the event to certain sensitive or susceptible locations, potential noise or other impacts, nature of the activity, presence of alcohol, past experiences with events of similar nature, whether or not the event will attract attendees from outside of the immediate McGill community. The cost of providing what the University deems to be adequate security is to be borne by the group booking the space.
Per the Policy on Hassment and Discrimination Prohibited by Law, Section 2.6,
Harassment means any vexatious behaviour by one Member of the University Community towards another Member of the University Community in the form of repeated hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affect the dignity or psychological or physical integrity of a Member of the University Community and that result in a harmful environment for such an individual. Within the employment relationship, a single serious incidence of such behaviour that has a lasting harmful effect on such an individual may also constitute Harassment.
McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office “provides information, education and training to all areas of the University in order to cultivate a respectful and supportive campus”, though the Office is currently undergoing dissolution.
On March 20, 2017, then-Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), Andrew Potter, published an opinion piece in Maclean’s Magazine. The article was critical of Quebec society, referring to it as “an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society,” using the aftermath of a recent snowstorm, police labour disputes, and restaurant billing to illustrate his point. The article drew widespread criticism and calls for Dr. Potter to step down from his position.
Dr. Potter wrote an email to the Board of MISC on March 21 which was obtained by the National Post. The National Post summarized his letter as follows:
A letter Potter wrote to the institute’s board the day before he resigned, obtained through access to information, gave no indication he intended to step down. He apologized to the trustees and pointed out that he had issued a public retraction of the “unsupportable aspects” of his column.
“If anyone can suggest any further steps I can take to make this right, for MISC and for McGill, I’m all ears,” he concluded.
At 1:45 the following afternoon, Potter was in a meeting with Fortier, internal McGill emails obtained through access to information show. Less than three hours later, Fortier’s chief of staff, Susan Aberman, wrote the university’s vice-principal communications, Louis Arseneault, asking for “help in preparing a plan and communiqué” regarding Potter’s resignation.
On March 22, 2017, Dr. Potter resigned.
On March 23, 2017, McGill principal Suzanne Fortier issued a statement on the matter which read as follows:
Dear members of the McGill community,
Professor Andrew Potter resigned from his position as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC). He made his letter of resignation public on social media.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Professor Potter and his courage in making this very difficult and painful decision.
The Board of MISC regretfully accepted Professor Potter’s resignation. The mission of MISC is to promote a better understanding of Canada through the study of our heritage and to support the study of Canada across the country and internationally. Professor Potter recognized that he had failed to uphold this mission and that the “credibility of the Institute would be best served by his resignation”.
Andrew Potter remains a professor and a valued member of the McGill community. We are committed to offering him our support as he transitions from the Director position.
His resignation provoked unfounded rumours and concerns regarding academic freedom.
I want to assure members of the McGill community that academic freedom is a foundational principle of McGill University, as enunciated in our Senate and Board approved Statement of Academic Freedom[...]
Principal and Vice-Chancellor
In May of 2017, long-time MISC board member and former National Post editor Ken Whyte resigned from his position, citing McGill administration’s handling of the Potter controversy as the catalyst for his resignation. He tweeted that he was “tired of defending McGill’s decision to demote Andrew Potter.” In a subsequent interview with the National Post, Whyte stated that “[Principal Fortier’s office] was, from what I could see, the obstacle to a solution other than Andrew resigning.”
In March of 2012, one of McGill’s main newspapers, the McGill Daily ran a story on McGillLeaks, which was an external (non-university) website that had published some confidential documents detailing McGill’s increased fundraising efforts towards corporate donors. The administration threatened the Daily with legal action, claiming that the student newspaper was threatening “McGill’s rights” by stealing private information. The Daily responded: “We find the actions and intimidation tactics of McGill University and its legal representatives to be suppressive of our and any organization’s rights to freedom of speech.”
The paper argued that the information is no longer confidential, having been put in the public domain by McGillLeaks, but decided not to force the matter to court, due to resource constraints, but maintains that it did not steal the documents since they were already public.
When the controversial “Echoes of the Holocaust” event was held on campus in October of 2009, McGill’s administration failed to uphold free speech rights when this event was forcibly disrupted and shut down by protesters. Campus security took no action to quiet or remove the protesters. McGill’s choice to condone the shut-down of this event rendered meaningless its laudable rejection, prior to the event taking place, of calls to cancel the event.
Freedom of expression and academic freedom are not referenced in the Mission of the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU).
The SSMU Equity Committee has the power to remove a club’s funding if the Committee deems the club’s action or discussion to be in violation of the Equity Policy. Section 12.3 (Revocation) of the Internal Regulations of Student Groups also states that the Vice-President Student Life may revoke the status of an Independent Student Group at any time:
for the following reasons:
SSMU’s Equity Policy professes its firm commitment to “the creation of safe(r) spaces for its membership.”
Section 1.1.7 of the Equity Policy says “SSMU-facilitated equity training(s) must be provided to all elected officers and representatives, members of the Board of Directors, Judicial Board members and student staff on a yearly basis.”
Per the SSMU Electoral Regulations, there is a Demerit System that “serves as a general reference point for the CEO in determining the sanctions to apply for a particular infraction of campaign rules. The document is non-exhaustive and non-binding, as the CEO may choose to apply sanctions as they see fit.” “Negative campaigning” is one such infraction.
Section 3.5 of the Internal Regulations of Elections and Referenda states:
All campaign literature shall be subject to approval by Elections SSMU prior to distribution. The Chief Electoral Officer shall implement a system to inform candidates of whether campaign literature has been approved.
The SSMU publishes a Positions Book to “provide general guidance for the advocacy priorities of the Society...All representatives and employees are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the values contained in this Positions Book to the best of their ability.”
The Positions Book includes resolutions such as:
4.2 That the fight against the climate crisis is inextricable from a movement to combat systemic inequalities and the dominance of capitalist and colonialist paradigms in the Global North.
8.2 That there is no one step or set of steps that an individual must undergo in order to have their gender identity affirmed and respected.
8.3 That a person’s choice in some cases to not use menstrual products at all is a decision that is entirely theirs to make and one that should be respected as such.
In March of 2015, the SSMU’s Joint Anti-Austerity Mobilization Working Group endorsed and co-organized a student “anti-austerity” strike throughout Montreal.
In October of 2013, SSMU Vice-President Internal Brian Farnan sent out an electronic message, “Honestly midterms get out of here,” that included a link to a viral political satire video that had been doctored to portray U.S. President Barack Obama kicking open a door on the way out of a news conference. The email triggered a complaint to the SSMU Equity Committee. On December 5, 2013, SSMU Council approved a motion ordering that Farnan apologize to McGill students and undergo racial sensitivity training.
Joey Shea, Vice President University Affairs for SSMU, defended the decision saying “[the] fact that a complaint did come forward does prove that someone was harmed and did feel harm, and I think that there should be more apologies in society generally.”
After much backlash and national media attention, in March of 2014, SSMU council rescinded its motion against Farnan, although Farnan had already followed through with his apology and sensitivity training by then.
On March 28, 2013, a five-person discussion panel was convened at McGill University by the Minor program in Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies to discuss “Blackface, Ethnic Comedy, and the Tension Between Free Expression and Racism,” in conjunction with the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The panel included Julius Grey, a prominent civil liberties lawyer and professor. After several complaints were filed the SSMU Equity Commissioner and two other student officers sent to the panel chair, Dr. Morton Weinfeld, McGill sociology professor and Chair in Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies, the following letter:
…we were outraged by the presentation made by Julius Grey, who …opened his presentation by asserting, “I taught here for 27 years and I started every single one of my classes with the words ‘I reserve the right to be totally politically incorrect. Anybody who can’t take it should take another course.’ I kept my word, I was totally politically incorrect; I will be politically incorrect here.”
…Grey’s presentation centered on an argument in favour of the right to “free speech” and emphatically against collective rights for minority groups. He went on to argue that racialized/ ethnocultural groups should assimilate rather than organize and assert themselves collectively.
“Yes, I am opposed to collective rights,” he asserted, “…I think groups have no right to survive. I think it’s a bad thing that they survive. My solution for black rights is assimilation. My solution for Jews is assimilation. I hope to see an America or a Canada…in which there’s no such thing as a black man, no such thing as a white man, no such thing as an Asian man.” Certainly the eugenicist tone of these statements is deeply troubling. And he acknowledged, “It is obvious that neither black community activists, nor the Jewish community, nor the Greek community is going to be happy to hear what I’m saying. It means taking away their privileges or influence and everything else.”
Grey disputed the notion that our society is “nice” and the value in attempts at “legislating niceness.”
Grey’s entire presentation was underscored by the fact that in delivering it, he asserted his own individual right to “free speech” over the collective rights of those present to be protected from his psychological violence. The power that he wielded in this situation as a renowned, older white male attorney and former professor at McGill – such that fellow panelists and audience members did not interrupt his twenty-minute presentation despite experiencing it as oppressive and hurtful – exemplifies how freedom of speech certainly does not extend to all equally; it is governed by existing power relations and can indeed be used to maintain them.
Grey concluded by stating, “So if we’re going to have a society which can change, which can evolve, which can have true equality…we should say not only that minorities should be protected but also, as I say, that minorities should disappear; safe to say without any form of racism whatsoever.” Dr. Weinfeld, attaching an “ought” statement to the sentiment of minorities disappearing is racism! This needs to be acknowledged.
…As tensions rose, Dr. Weinfeld, you attempted…calling for academic rules of decorum. Given the racism and identities-based marginalization that many people experience at McGill on a daily basis, the event attracted a number of students in search of an inclusive space in which these issues might be addressed and discussed. Instead, many of those present found themselves in yet another situation at this university where racism was present and permitted to flourish; where white privilege and patriarchal power were asserted and used to try to silence the voices of those who expressed their objections to what was happening.
It is our position, Dr. Weinfeld, that you had a responsibility to use your power as the moderator of the event and as the Chair of Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies to interrupt Grey’s presentation which clearly was inappropriate (if ironic) at an event organized in recognition of the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Rather than an issue of Grey’s “right to free speech,” we understand this situation as being about the choice to give him a platform for that speech at our university.
In a March 30 debriefing about the event among several people who had attended, comments were shared about the ways in which Grey’s speech and behaviour had caused attendees physical and psychological symptoms of stress in the 24 hours following the event, such as feelings of anxiety, insomnia, and tension-related bodily pain…
We hereby call on you, Dr. Weinfeld, to address these concerns and to issue a public apology to the attendees of the event for your failure to moderate the panel in a manner in keeping with a commitment to working toward the elimination of racial discrimination and indeed all forms of discrimination. For despite Grey’s assertion that the damage done by “mere speech” “doesn’t matter,” we expect that you recognize that speech, particularly in the context of unequal power relations, can be assaultive; that words can and are (and always have been) used as part of the matrix of domination to “ambush, terrorize, wound, humiliate, and degrade” particular groups of people.
Dr. Weinfeld did not issue a public apology, nor did the SSMU Equity Commissioner further attempt to enforce compliance with the request.
In March of 2012, a student group called McGill Friends of Israel (MFI) planned an event called “Israel A-Party,” designed to counter-message Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) which is an annual, nation-wide event that labels Israel as an apartheid state. Before the event was scheduled to take place, SSMU executives told the group that they would have to change the name of the event because they considered it “a mockery and/or trivialization of various oppressions some people of the world are subject to on a day-to-day basis.” The group complied and changed the name to “A Party for Israel” so that they could still hold the event.
The SSMU decision was made after a complaint was received from a student who felt threatened and offended by the event’s name. The SSMU used the complaint to justify its decision:
We feel that the title ‘Israel A-Party’ makes too much light of the convictions and experiences of students such as the claimant of this complaint…It is our job to ensure a safer place on campus.
On October 6th, 2009, the pro-life club Choose Life hosted a controversial talk, entitled “Echoes of the Holocaust,” a speech drawing comparison between abortion and the atrocities of the Holocaust, presented by Jose Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform. Prior to the event, SSMU passed a motion with a vote of 25-2-2 to “demand” that the administration intervene and cancel the event. SSMU additionally warned Choose Life that they were in violation of SSMU’s Equity Policy, and that if they chose to continue with the event, that their funding would be permanently revoked.
McGill University refused to cancel the event, and asserted Choose Life’s right to debate the issue, but then condoned the shut-down of the event by protesters.
Following the disrupted event, SSMU followed through with the revocation of Choose Life’s official club status on November 12, 2009, in response to four complaints made to the Equity Commission. The SSMU justified its decision with the SSMU Equity Policy, citations of “hate speech,” the use of “questionable statistics from questionable sources” (SSMU disagreed with the assertion that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer), and the use of graphic imagery. The revocation of Choose Life’s charter meant the group no longer received funding, and could not use any SSMU services or facilities, including the booking of rooms for meetings or events.
In April of 2010, the SSMU Council voted to reinstate Choose Life but subject to restrictions not imposed on any other campus club:
In the 2018–19 financial year,* McGill University received $682,203,000 in taxpayer dollars in the form of government grants. These taxpayer funds accounted for 48% of their annual revenue.
*McGill University did not make their 2019–20 financial statements available by the time of publication of the 2020 Campus Freedom Index.