Senate approves Statement of Principles, discusses Operational Procedures

Posted on Thursday, March 21, 2013

Photo: John Kelsey

By McGill Reporter Staff

The long process to establish a set of guidelines and ground rules concerning protests, demonstrations and occupations on campus cleared another hurdle Wednesday as Senate approved a revised Statement of Principles Concerning Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly.

Following a lengthy discussion, a failed attempt to table it and a failed amendment, the motion to approve the statement passed by a large margin. Senate also discussed a document outlining Operating Procedures, which spells out how the university would respond to events such as demonstrations or occupations.

“McGill is a place for open and frank dialogue, both inside and outside the classroom,” the Statement of Principles reads. “The University values the variety of opinions and experiences of members of the McGill community and encourages the open and respectful expression of that diversity. Respect for the meaningful expression of dissent requires tolerance for a certain degree of inconvenience, including inconvenience that may arise from the means by which opinions may be expressed.”

Provost Anthony Masi told Senate the University has been engaged in consultation on these issues for more than a year, beginning with the report by Dean of Law Daniel Jutras into the events of Nov. 10, 2011, including a brief occupation of the Principal’s and Provost’s office area and the presence of riot police on campus. A provisional protocol outlining some of the concepts later spelled out in the two documents brought to Senate this week, was established following a five-day occupation of sixth-floor offices in the James Administration building in February 2012. Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi also led a process of consultation into these issues, as well as an academic conference.

The Provisional Protocol was revised last fall and circulated for comment. Out of that consultation process, later extended and expanded, came the two separate documents.

The Statement of Principles will go to the Board of Governors for approval on April 26.

“We haven’t always agreed and this is normal in a diverse community such as ours,” Masi told Senate. “But views have been exchanged with respect and important suggestions have been made as the process unfolded that have helped us strengthen and improve our statements and guide the development of our procedures.”

He said the Statement of Principles is an “overarching” document that guides the Operating Procedures, which reads in part: “These operating procedures explain how the University will manage a range of situations, with a view to defusing potentially unsafe situations before they get out of hand. The operating procedures do not constitute disciplinary procedures and they do not replace policies such as the Charter of Student Rights, the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures, or the Statement of Principles Concerning Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly.”

“I think it is also important to note that these documents are in line with the norms at our peer institutions elsewhere in Canada and indeed, internationally,” Masi continued. “There is nothing in these documents that takes away anyone’s existing rights, indeed the Statement of Principles is a strong affirmation of individual rights on our campuses and I would urge Senate to approve it.”

But several Senators voiced concerns about ways in which the statement and procedures could restrict protest on campus and questioned the need for them. “An attempt to define ‘peaceful’ is … intellectually dangerous,” said student Senator and SSMU President Josh Redel.

“Maybe if we were the University of Tehran we might need this,” said Senator Catherine Lu, a political science professor. “I don’t think it’s going to do a very good job.”

Masi noted that both Jutras and Manfredi said establishing a protocol and statement of values would reflect best practices at other universities. “We have listened to consultants from outside the University,” he said. “I believe it is important for McGill to have a statement of principles like these.”

Peter Todd, Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management, also spoke in favour of the Statement of Principles, saying it provides some clarity in balancing the rights of those who want to protest along with the rights of those who want to go about their teaching, studies and research. “Both sides of the community have to be able to do that in a safe and open way,” he said.

On the Operating Procedures document, which was presented for information only, Michael Di Grappa, Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) explained the need to outline in general terms how the University responds to demonstrations and protests, but that it is impossible to be more precise because responses will vary according to the context in which events take place.

“These documents were crafted in an attempt to clarify the rules under which McGill operates and the principles it holds dear, just as other universities have similar sets of guiding rules and principles,” he said. “It is important to remember that the University has a responsibility to protect a variety of rights, including the right to a safe and secure environment and the right to go about one’s affairs.

“This document serves to inform us, not to restrain or restrict us.

Redel objected that the document “says almost any occupy-able space may not be occupied.” McGill’s responsibilities in dealing with protests and demonstrations need to be delineated, he said, a point made by a couple of other Senators.

Read about other topics discussed at yesterday’s Senate meeting here.

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