Getting the big conversation going
By Doug Sweet
It has the ring of a Robert Ludlum title: The Manfredi Process. Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi has been handed the task of overseeing a process of consultation – in effect conducting a big conversation in which members of the McGill community can share their views on what is tolerable or appropriate when it comes to peaceful assembly and the expression of dissent or opinion on campus.
The process, which has its first event Thursday, March 1, with an open forum at 4 p.m. in Moyse Hall, springs from the report by Dean of Law Daniel Jutras into the protest and occupation of last Nov. 10 and the presence on campus of riot police who used pepper spray and shields to push protesters out the Milton Gates.
Manfredi has started a blog at http://blogs.mcgill.ca/openforum-expression/ where people can share views about the process.
How will this roll out?
We will have four public events open to the University community that will be live-streamed and we’re working on a process that will allow people access to an interactive web participation. So we’re doing three events at the downtown campus and one at the Mac campus. They’re going to be relatively open-ended, as an open forum should be. The process, of course, emerges from the first recommendation of the Jutras Report and in that report Dean Jutras raised a number of general and specific questions, mostly emerging out of the events of Nov. 10 that he saw as important to discuss.
But I also think there are some other issues that we need to discuss that aren’t necessarily directly related to the events that gave rise to the Jutras Report. And in particular, one of the things I’d like to hear from the community about is what the University should do when controversial speakers come on campus. What do we do when speakers come on campus that some individuals and groups in the University community find offensive? Does the University have an obligation to protect their right to speak? If so, to what extent? And we have had some incidents where controversial speakers have been silenced by individuals and groups and I think that’s a serious question not directly related to the Jutras Report, but something that I think we should discuss in this process.
What kind of time frame are we looking at?
We’re looking at the four events to be done by April 4. The mandate from the Principal indicates that there should be a half-day academic conference around these issues, which we are trying to organize. The terms of reference indicate that everything should be done by June 8. All the four dates of the public events are already posted on the blog; I think they’re March 1, 12, 27 and April 4. The March 27 event is at Mac campus.
How do you keep the discussion respectful and on topic?
I’ve sent out a general message to the community where I’ve stressed the value of the open forum is directly dependent on the level, quality, engagement, respectfulness and civility of the participation. So, to some degree, the onus is on the University community to come to this with a seriousness of purpose and a degree of respect that is appropriate for a university. Otherwise, I see this as my chance to actually go back to being a professor –I see conducting these open fora as similar to teaching a class where I hope to lead the discussion, to keep the discussion on focus, to challenge the assumptions, the assertions of individuals.
What other avenues are open to people who want to express themselves?
Although it’s not an explicit part of the terms of reference, after consulting with the advisory group, I reached a conclusion that I would make myself available for invitations from individuals and groups who might want to speak with me outside of the open forum and I will always try to have a member of the advisory group with me in those meetings; the role of the advisory group is to hear what is said and to help me formulate the report and to give me advice on what I hear. I have also invited written submissions.
Who makes up the advisory group?
The advisory group is composed of three sets of members: one set of members selected by the Senate, a second set appointed by the Board of Governors and a third set appointed by me in order to fill in the expertise and areas of the University that I wanted to see that I didn’t think were particularly covered by the Senate and Board of Governors.
The terms of reference mandate a minimum of two students; we’ve got three students on the advisory group, two undergraduates and one graduate student. And one of the undergraduate students is also a student Senator, so we’re trying to connect in with that representative constituency. We’ve got members of academic staff, members of non-academic staff, dedicated volunteers and alumni from the University.
Will there be a report that comes out of all his?
There’s a report scheduled to be presented in early October, so I’ll spend the summer writing it up. As I said, I see this as a very substantive document, perhaps a chance for us to reflect on these issues for the first time in a very long time. And hopefully to reflect on them in a period of relative calm; one never wants to make policy in real time as events are unfolding. One wants to be able to have a chance to reflect on it.
Because, in fact, the University did make some policy in real time, while this was going on, in terms of the provisional protocol.
That’s right, there are provisional protocols on protests. In fact, I think it was quite explicit, when those were announced, that part of this process would be to look at those and to see whether those provisional protocols might be altered in some way.
I should also add that there are lots of University documents that regulate speech and assembly, ranging from everything like the code of conduct and student disciplinary procedures to regulations on harassment, sexual harassment … and I even I learned last week that the code of conduct for the University Chaplaincy prohibits proselytization…..
Of course, communication is both talking and listening.
Absolutely. And on both sides. One of the things I’ve tried to understand is that, you know, the University is made up of multiple constituencies – academic staff, non-academic staff, students, our alumni and the community that surrounds us. And just as communication between students and the administration is important, communication among students themselves is important. It became obvious, certainly after the early February occupation of the James Building, that students themselves have a wide variety of views on these issues, there’s a diverse set of opinions out there.
And so I think this will be an opportunity for students as well to hear from each other about what they think on this – for each constituency to hear what other members of their constituency think, as well for different constituencies to hear the views of others.
How do we resolve the conflict between your right to free speech and my right to study quietly for my midterm?
First of all, every right has a set of responsibilities attached to it. No right is absolute. There’s no jurisdiction in the world, of which I’m aware, where rights are absolute. And certainly speech, expression and assembly are all qualified rights to some degree. Just the fact that we talk about a right, not to assembly, but to peaceful assembly – so it becomes an empirical question of course as to when does an assembly cease to be peaceful? Everyone understands that assemblies must be peaceful, but we disagree about where the line is drawn between a peaceful and an un-peaceful assembly.
Every jurisdiction has regulations on the manner, form and, to a lesser degree, on the content of speech. Defamatory speech is always regulated. Slander and libel are regulations of speech. So, to talk about regulating speech and assembly is not to say something sort of radical or extreme…. But what we need to do is talk about what are the regulations and what are the particular regulations that are applicable in a university setting that may be different from a non-university setting.
Universities are, by their very nature, places for the discussion of controversial ideas and places where dissent is to some degree almost encouraged. Certainly the whole point of scholarship and research is to dissent from conventional wisdom, because that’s the way that knowledge advances, so everyone has a sense that they’re always challenging authority – whether it’s challenging scientific authority in their discipline or maybe challenging the authority of university administrators. So maybe universities are different, but they can’t be entirely different because they exist within a broader society that has sets of rules that neither the university nor its members can completely ignore.