Role of universities in encouraging free speech at heart of discussions
By Jim Hynes
The good news about the Open Forum on Free Expression and Peaceful Assembly is that a diverse group of McGillians has started talking about what is tolerable or appropriate when it comes the expression of dissent or opinion on campus. The turnout for the events, however, has not been as strong as organizers would have liked.
Approximately 40 people, a mix of students, staff, faculty and administrators, including Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and Provost Anthony Masi, attended the second of the four planned forum sessions on Monday, March 12 in the University Centre’s Lev Bukhman Room. About 30 people attended the first session March 1 in the Arts Building’s Moyse Hall.
Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi, who has been handed the task of overseeing the process, and who is serving as moderator at the events, said he isn’t fazed by the low numbers at the first sessions.
“Although one would always like to see more rather than fewer people at events such as these, I am mostly interested in the quality of the discussion and the diversity of views presented,” Manfredi told the Reporter following the March 12 event. “In this respect, I am quite pleased. As one participant said at today’s forum, it is rare for an event like this to bring together the entire range of community members: students, faculty, non-academic staff, senior non-academic administrators and senior academic administrators. We are making every effort to encourage as much attendance as possible, but it is ultimately the responsibility of members of the University community to have their voices heard on these topics.”
A fair portion of the wide-ranging discussion, as at the March 1 event, centred around the subject of personal and public spaces, more specifically appropriate locations on campus for expressing dissent and the possibility of designating special areas for demonstrations and protests.
Alex Megelas, a Coordinator at the School of Continuing Studies PACE program, said he was opposed to the idea of designated spaces for demonstrations.
“The issue I have with your suggestion [of designated spaces] is it sounds a whole lot like a proposition that people withhold their dissent until they’re well within the appropriate area where free speech is allowed,” Megelas said.
“You brought up a few times … this issue that everyone on campus needs to feel safe. And what I hear behind that is this idea that first and foremost the University is responsible to the members of its community,” Megelas said. “And I think there’s something that’s fundamentally flawed in that notion. I think that the University is first and foremost accountable to its social purpose as a significant space for the moulding of social discourse for the exploration of notions of citizenship.”
Lorenz Luthi, an associate professor in the department of History, concurred with Megelas about the University as a place for open discussion and the limitations restricting it to certain locations would impose.
“This is a special place in society… it’s a place where students learn to become citizens… This is how I see my role as a professor in the Faculty of Arts, to train them to become responsible and critical citizens. What it means is we have to also give them the place where they might misstep,” Luthi said. “I think in general, since we are a university with this double function of the free exchange of ideas and of training future critical citizens, we should always err on the side of free speech. That should be our default position. And that means that designated places where people can demonstrate really goes against the spirit of the university.”
Dean Manfredi said he is pleased with the discussions so far.
“The Advisory Group and I have heard some interesting points of view that offer important perspectives on the various questions raised in Dean Jutras’s report,” he said. “I would like to see even more direct exchanges between participants, and we will work to encourage those.”
The next Open Forum on Free Expression and Peaceful Assembly takes place Tuesday, March 27 at Macdonald Campus, from 1:30-3 p.m. The fourth and final forum will be held on the downtown campus April 4.
For more on the Open Forum, and to download podcasts of the first two sessions, visit http://blogs.mcgill.ca/openforum-expression/.