|Year||University Policies||University Practices||Student Union Policies||Student Union Practices|
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.
McGill’s Charter of Student Rights states that “[every] student enjoys within the University the freedoms of opinion, of expression and of peaceful assembly.”
Articles 25-26 of Chapter 1 of the Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities state:
In Section B, Article 5 of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures there is a provision on “Obstruction,” which states:
(a) No student shall, by action, threat, or otherwise, knowingly obstruct University activities.
The Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office has a Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Prohibited by Law. The Policy defines discrimination as “action, behaviour or decision…which results in the exclusion or preference of an individual or group within the University community” (2.6).
The SEDE Office gave birth to one of McGill’s most ubiquitous social equity programs, “Safe Space.” The Safe Space Program was created by the Queer Equity subcommittee in 2004, and provides workshops for faculty, staff and students addressing racial and sexual discrimination. “Safe Space Allies at McGill” are offices, departments and residences that participate in Safe Space workshops and have Safe Space posters or plaques advertising their respective areas as “Safe Spaces.”
The workshops “educate” participants on hurtful words, and challenge homophobic or racist comments and jokes. As a result, people in areas with Safe Space plaques will reprimand anyone making inappropriate comments, despite claims that Safe Space is purely voluntary and educational only.
McGill’s Guidelines for Booking Occasional Events state that “[while] the University is politically non-partisan and secular, it values the variety of opinions and experiences of the members of the McGill community and encourages the respectful and open expression of that diversity.” It further states:
The temporary installation of political, national, religious, or other symbols will be permitted, but, in line with the University’s politically non-partisan and secular orientation, only at the location of the event, within the time-limited period agreed to in the event permit.
Mindful of its obligation to provide a safe, secure, and respectful environment to the members of the McGill community, the University is free to deny permission for any gathering and at any time, if the University has reasonable cause to believe that the gathering would disrupt normal University activities, otherwise disrupt the University environment, or promote hatred or violence.
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:
Statement of Academic Freedom:
Academic freedom is central to McGill University’s mission of advancing learning through teaching, scholarship and service to society.
The scholarly members of the university have the freedom to pursue research and artistic creation and to disseminate their results, without being constrained by political or disciplinary orthodoxies, monetary incentives or punitive measures as a result of their academic pursuits. They may exercise this freedom in the service of both the university and the wider society. When scholarly members of the university participate in public forums and debates, they should represent their views as their own.
The exercise of academic freedom requires collegial governance with the full participation of scholarly members. They retain the right of free expression, including the freedom to criticize one another, university policies and administration.
The university and its officers have a duty to protect the academic freedom of its scholarly community, both individually and collectively, from infringement and undue external influence as well as to maintain the university’s institutional autonomy.
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.
GRADE EXPLANATION: The student union earns an F 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 restrictions on campaign speech and literature; the student union takes political positions on issues outside its mandate. The student union earns a C for its practices; the student union employed union resources in support of a policy position not directly related to post-secondary education.
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 this Committee deems the club’s action or discussion to be in violation of the Equity Policy.
SSMU’s Equity Policy professes its firm commitment to “the creation of safe(r) spaces for its membership.”
Section 3.2 of the Equity Policy states:
Neither this Policy in general, nor its definitions in particular, are to be applied in such a way as to detract from the right of members to engage in open discussion of potentially controversial matters. No individual student or student group should have the effect of limiting dialogue on legitimate topics provided that such discussion is conducted in a respectful, non-coercive, collegial manner that conforms to the Policy on discrimination and harassment set out in section 4 of this Policy.
SSMU’s Internal Regulations on Student Groups, state regarding club certification that it considers the following:
The Internal Regulations on Student Groups further states that club status may be revoked over:
iii. Failure of the Club to meet the accreditation criteria outlined in these Internal Regulations;
iv. Other stated causes as determined by the Vice-President (Student Life) or the Legislative Council.
On postering, SSMU states that it will not permit posters that “contain objectionable materials deemed inappropriate by the SSMU.”
The Internal Regulations on Elections and Referenda states:
Each candidate or Referendum committee shall be permitted to spend the following maximum amount, in Canadian dollars, on campaigning:
(a) candidates for Election as an Officer shall be permitted to spend a maximum of one hundred and fifty dollars ($150);
(b) Referendum committees shall be permitted to spend a maximum of two hundred dollars ($200); and
(c) candidates seeking a position as an executive of the First Year Council, as an Elected Undergraduate Senator, or as a Councillor representing the Society’s Clubs, as a Councillor representing the Society’s Services, or an elected Undergraduate Representative to CKUT shall be permitted to spend a maximum of fifty dollars ($50).
SSMU has adopted stances on issues including Black Lives Matter, “indigenous solidarity,” “illegal unpaid internships,” military funding, climate change, austerity, and other issues not directly related to its mandate.
In February of 2015, the SSMU and the Post Graduate Students Society passed a joint motion which resolved:
Be it resolved that: SSMU and PGSS jointly reaffirm the following:
While recognizing the difficult decisions to be taken by the McGill administration, SSMU and PGSS firmly believe academics, student life and services must be safeguarded from cuts in the budget planning process.
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 decided to follow 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: