Plus ça change: New protest documents are more of the same

Editorial

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Feb 5, 2013

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Nearly a year after McGill released its proposed Protocol Regarding Demonstrations, Protests, and Occupations, the administration has drafted its latest incarnation. The new version comes in the form of two concurrent documents: a Statement of Values regarding freedom of expression, and a set of Operating Procedures intended to act as a guideline for disciplinary action in the event of protests and demonstrations. Although these replace the latest protocol on the pretense of the administration reacting to student opposition, the new documents are still open to most of the previouslylevelled criticisms. These include charges of ambiguous language, and of the university overstepping its bounds by infringing on human rights. This latest response from the university leaves us with no sense that these concerns have been taken into account.

As was the case with the previous draft protocol, these two documents are being released with the promise of a consultation process. This comes in the form of two “Consultation Fairs” (one downtown and one at Macdonald Campus), as well as an online discussion forum on the announcement page. We have numerous concerns about the effectiveness of these strategies. Will the university publicize its efforts in a way that will garner interest? If so, will the fairs be able to accomodate high attendance? More importantly, we have come to feel that the administration’s professed commitment to the consultation process amounts to nothing more than lip service. For over a year, students have been lobbied for their input on the protocol, and despite a vocal response from the McGill community and elsewhere— including an open letter of concern from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA)—we have yet to see any major deviation from the initial protocols. Changes have been limited to the removal of a definition of non-peaceful demonstrations, and a more descriptive definition of “disruptive.” After a year of criticisms and concerns being pushed aside, our confidence in any consultation process has been severely shaken.

The university’s claim that its procedures are in line with those of other institutions also leave us unconvinced. The situations of different institutions are rarely perfectly analogous, especially considering Quebec’s unique history of protests. To assume that another school’s policies can be used as a valid comparison point, or are a fair standard in defining what is appropriate, is a highly misguided notion. We will accomplish nothing by merely adoping another university’s values, especially while disregarding ongoing input from the McGill community.

We also take issue with the approval process as it has been proposed. Splitting the Protocol into two documents means that while the Statement of Values will be put before the Senate and the Board of Governors (BoG) in the spring, the Operating Procedures are being considered an “operational or administrative matter,” and will not be subject to any ratification process. Seeing as how it is this latter document that inherited the controversial and widely opposed aspects of the protocol, we find the administration’s conduct to be deceptive and underhanded. This further weakens our faith in the consultation process. Additionally, this effectively unilateral declaration on the administration’s behalf will undoubtedly harm the document’s perceived legitimacy; there is no evidence that these Operating Procedures reflect the values of the student body or those of the greater community. While following this course of action is within the administration’s rights, we feel that the mere ability to do so does not mean that they should.

The same applies when it comes to the actual contents of the Operating Procedures. The statement that was sent out with the documents cites article 9.1 of the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which outlines acceptable limits to the rights of the individual. Again it is clear that the school is not overstepping its legal boundaries, but by no means does this suggest that that its actions are appropriate. Drafting its Operating Procedures without any real regard for the community’s input has allowed the administration to set its own definitions of free expression, and outline its own parameters for legality. When there are such decisions to be made elsewhere in society, they are entrusted to judges, who are expected to be neutral and unbiased. McGill can make no such claim to impartiality. Regardless, even the parameters that the administration does identify are, as in previous iterations of the protocol, excessively vague, and fail to effectively identify the limits of a peaceful and acceptable protest. As a result, the document leaves far too much arbitrary and retroactive power of interpretation in the hands of the administration. It defines the four parameters: intensity, intentionality, duration, and location, by which it evaluates a protest, but it fails to quantify them in any meaningful way. Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi’s Report of the Open Forum on Free Expression and Peaceful Assembly states that “It is only when a protest or demonstration takes a disruptive form previously defined as unacceptable by authorities that it becomes civil disobedience.” A major issue with the new Operating Procedures and the preceding protocol is that it is never clear what is being “defined as unacceptable.” Such ambiguous terms inevitably leave protesters vulnerable to attacks on their freedom of expression.

Throughout this increasingly protracted consultation process, the administration has obliquely refused to make any significant changes in its proposals. Under the guise of a dialogue, the repeated, ineffective consultations have served to do nothing more than frustrate and exhaust opposition to McGill’s restrictive vision of expression on campus. With no official channel beyond an increasingly suspect consultation process for students to express their dissatisfaction with the documents, it is becoming ever more clear that McGill has no respect for those whom its policies impact. We are dismayed to see that so little has changed in a year.

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