Commentary | Letters: Protest the protocol!

Revise yourself!

One of the surprises for many professors who served as advisors for students undergoing disciplinary hearings in spring and summer 2012 was the extent to which the current student code provides genuine protection for freedom of expression and assembly, including forms of protest that may be deemed disruptive.  It also defers to precedents established in Quebec and Canada. The current initiative to revise the student code stems from desire to place greater limitations and qualifications on freedoms of expression and assembly than the province and nation. For a number of reasons, however good the intentions of those who propose revision, I think it is ill-advised for a number of reasons. First, it is not the place of the University to place limits or qualifications on political freedoms. Second, such an act runs counter to the ideals of the university, which are to allow for great freedom of expression and assembly. Third, it places McGill at odds with the ideals of Quebec universities, institutions, and society, breaking any sense of connection with the broader community. Fourth, the revisions put forth a corporate image of the university, namely, freedoms must be limited to assure that business is not disrupted. Fifth, recent polls place McGill among the worst universities in North America for student-professor relations. Defining the classroom as a site of business rather than learning can only contribute to the sense of the authority of professors over students, and spur the tendency of professors to ignore students’ concerns. Sixth, while students, staff, and faculty may be asked to contribute opinions, there are no structures in place allowing for democratic procedures. It is generally bad practice to use the language of openness and democracy without its institutional substance. The effect will be to silence dissent and crush assembly and student governance. In sum, although those who propose revisions clearly feel that they are responding to a crisis, the process of revision is structurally disposed toward increasing crisis. What needs revision, that is, deep reconsideration, is the uneven and uneasy relations between professors and students, employers and employees.

—Thomas Lamarre
Professor, East Asian Studies



McGill suppresses dissent

The administration knows:

• That in the future it will continue to have to deal with students agitating for the University to embody progressive goals, which will probably contradict the administration’s own plans.

The erstwhile Protocol (and whatever it is called now) is:

• A mechanism for the police to intervene in what are effectively political disputes.
• A very good way for the administration to isolate itself from those discontented with pretty radical neo-liberal policy.

What it means for us:

• Tactics that previously warranted serious negotiation between students and administration are now considered unacceptable. In contemporaneous protest movements on campuses, police are telling students that the idea of non-violent civil disobedience (sit-ins, disruptions, protests) doesn’t exist. Any disobedience to a police’s orders is violent, and thus warrants state sponsored violence in turn (i.e. police action).
• The University has effectively completed one more step in disassociating us from directly affecting one of the institutions that directly impacts our lives.


• In the future, neo-liberalism is going to continue to support and give public resources to finance the intensified exploitation of life (e.g. mining industries, military contracts). It is intensifying exploitation of everyone everywhere. It uses securitization to do this. On the global stage it means border security stopping exploited workers from moving to more prosperous regions. In the domestic sense it means increasing reprisals for political engagement.

—Adrian Turcato 
B.A. ’11 Art History  



Unimaginative and unidirectional, en garde!

The Provisional Protocol (PP) was an attempt to manage away the kind of activism we have seen on campus in recent years. As such, it was not something to obey in the first place. It’s not surprising that the PP was withdrawn once it was denounced by officially recognized organizations. It’s also not surprising that the PP is being redesigned and repackaged. I will be surprised if the ‘new and improved’ PP differs in ways that will matter to those who have repeatedly and effectively defied and disobeyed it.

What is presented to us now as an opportunity to “communicate our views” and “discuss” the Statement of Values on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly (such as in a “consultation fair”) signals no substantive change in how such “discussions” are convened or how decision-making happens at McGill. The premises and terms of discussion in perfunctory “consultation fairs” are set in advance to move only in the direction of the administration’s desired ends. As such, they provide no room for real engagement for many on campus who reject, find objectionable, or otherwise can’t abide the preliminary terms of the discussion.

At the very least, I’d think one would be embarrassed to flaunt such unimaginative policies and unidirectional decision-making approaches in a city with such a wide array of resources and models for consensus-based organizing. If the administrators tasked with creating protocols and the like insist on pushing through the Statement of Values on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly, all I can say to them is, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

—Adrienne Carey Hurley
Associate Professor, East Asian Studies



Protocol 2.0

I am a protester. I was an occupier. Given the number of rotten things happening in the world, I don’t anticipate that my participation in these kinds of events is likely to slow down any time in the near future. So naturally, to see that the Operating Procedures Regarding Demonstrations, Protests and Occupations has not really changed in substance since its inception as the Provisional Protocol in the spring of last year is a serious concern to me.

—Robin Reid-Fraser
SSMU VP (External)



How to incite protests?

I don’t have the disposition of an activist. I’m a soft-spoken person and I agonize over seeing all sides of an issue before I take action. Over the past two years, this has meant that I’ve been less likely to take to the streets than many of my fellow students. I really want to understand an issue before I weigh in on it. With this as ethos, I’m going to say something about the recently adopted Operating Procedures Regarding Demonstrations, Protests and Occupations on McGill University Campus.

What I have to say will not focus on the content of this document; however, I would like to note two things about its substance. First, after the events of November 10, 2011 I agree that the administration needs protocol to address on campus protests. Second, I agree with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) that there are very serious problems with the document you’ve put forward for this purpose.

What I want to focus on is how the Operating Procedure came to be what it is. It began as a temporary protocol instated last year in response to various forms of unrest on campus. Its content was criticized as draconian then, and much of that content remains in the present version. Between then and now you have held on-campus discussions and solicited emails for feedback on the protocol. I took the time to attend one of these discussions and wrote you a long email. I’m still waiting on a reply.

I say I’m still waiting, because it doesn’t seem like you’re really listening. The heart of what McGill’s non-academic workers’ union (MUNACA), its teaching union (AGSEM), its support employee union (AMUSE), and many students, including myself, have taken issue with in the document is still there. Your consultations and solicitation of feedback has given the community formal avenues by which to voice their opinions. However, giving voice is only useful if someone is listening.

In mid-January it appeared you were listening. In the face of a growing chorus of dissent you withdrew your attempts to pass the protocol through the Senate and Board of Governors. However, this appearance soon showed itself as a mirage. You proceeded to divide the document into a Statement of Values and the Operating Procedure I’ve been referring to. That is to say you divided the document into two parts: one that affirms free speech, and one that the CCLA is worried may be used to limit this freedom for students and staff at McGill.

The Senate and Board of Governors will vote on the Statement of Values but not the Operating Procedures. The latter – the part with teeth – you decided to instate unilaterally. By not putting the procedure through McGill’s governing body you have robbed students and staff of even the limited representation we have there. This shows all of your ‘affording us voice’ to be empty. You have forced through the part of the original document that was both most problematic and most contested, and to do so you have gone behind the back of the body that is supposed to represent the McGill community. Shame on you!

People protest for a number of reasons, but, from what I understand, it happens most frequently and most fervently when those people don’t feel established lanes of communication are open. When they feel no one is listening to them. As I said at the beginning of this letter, your goal of preventing a repeat of November 10, 2011 is one I fully support you in. But your means seem to be pushing in the opposite direction.

—Jake Bleiberg
U4 Political Science



Paper tigers don’t bite!

The Draft Protocol on Protests circulated last term contradicted itself. The Preamble defined the freedom of peaceful assembly as the freedom “to engage in meetings and demonstrations free from violence and intimidation.” The Protocol itself, however, declared that meetings and demonstrations will be “deemed” peaceful if they allow the uninterested and those who disagree to go on as if nothing were happening, especially if they work in any administrative offices. It is not enough that a demonstration avoid violence and intimidation; peace requires the avoidance of all inconvenience, all disruption, all boisterous good cheer, even – and certainly all intensity.

The administration has eliminated this contradiction in Solomonic fashion, by sundering the Draft Protocol in two. Instead of a contradiction, sitting there for all to see, we have one document which declares to the world McGill’s commitment to the freedom of assembly, and one document that reveals how the administration reacts when people actually assemble in protest.

Some people see in these hilariously misnamed “Operating Procedures” a grave threat to student protest. I see a paper tiger. The James building’s allergy to boisterous speech is no secret. This document merely spells out this allergy in black and white. The administration can “deem” until the cows come home, but they gain no new powers thereby. Having deemed, the only options are those they already exercise: allege that the Student Code has been violated, or call the cops. Since the Code declares plainly that no student can be penalized for peaceful protest (Art. 5c), student protesters are in the same position now that they were last year: they face an administration hostile to protest, but are shielded from this hostility by the Code, and by the independence of the Dean of Students and disciplinary officers. Don’t fear the deemer.

—William Clare Roberts
Assistant Professor, Political Science



Don’t circumvent democracy

Of the fundamental rights most pivotal to our advancement as a free society, undoubtedly the most important is our cherished right to free expression. Through protest, assembly, and dissent, the principles of free speech have held those in power accountable, toppled dictatorial regimes, and broadened our understanding of the human condition and social justice. It is this same right which drives the framework of our democracy, which protects the principle of opposition that is so crucial to the marketplace of ideas that moves our nation forward. By circumventing the sole democratic checks on its own authority to enact its new protocol regarding campus demonstrations, McGill’s administration has undermined the values that define our university as an innovator in the development of ideals that shape not just our immediate community, but the global trajectory of knowledge and understanding. In silencing students to suppress logistical inconveniences, this administration has abdicated its responsibility to safeguard the reputation and environment that make McGill one the world’s great institutions of higher learning. We speak often of free speech in a just and democratic society, but free speech does not mean that students get slapped with a surcharge, and the liberty of self-expression cannot be contingent on an operating procedure. If we truly wish to heal the divisive political wounds of last year, our way forward must be guided not by asking, “What is the best way to regulate speech?” but rather, “What is the best way to facilitate its expression?”

—Daniel Braden
U2 Political Science



Restore trust

I think we should look on the bright side of the latest draft protocol for coping with protest on campus. It quietly gives up on the idea floated last spring at the Manfredi Open Forum on Free Assembly that McGill set aside an outdoor space for blowing off steam, presumably far, far away from the James building. That was a very bad idea, because it would naturally provoke confrontation. Members of the community may now freely assemble wherever they wish, except in offices, classrooms, libraries, and meeting rooms. They may even cause a bit of inconvenience to others, as long as a certain threshold isn’t breached. Security agents, their managers, and presumably the senior administrators above them – ultimately Michael di Grappa, whose name is at the apex of our security organigram – will judge whether protesters have gone too far. The protocol explicitly requires them to exercise sound judgement, sensitive to context.

I could live with this, if I really believed that these people were capable of sound judgement. But I don’t, because they established such a lousy track record last year and remain – so far as I can see – completely unaccountable to the rest of us. McGill University does not really need this protocol. It has various codes and statutes that govern conduct. These things may need to be discussed from time to time, but they ultimately give us the guidelines we live by on campus. The protocol explicitly recognizes that it cannot replace them. All it can do, then, is explain to us how the security team will make its decisions. That would be fine, if we could be confident that this team has acquired, in the 12 months since the last occupation in James, the wisdom and respect for civil liberties needed to implement the protocol properly. As long as any significant doubts remain, our problem is a loss of trust. How this problem may be solved, I am not sure. It will certainly take more than a giant fruit salad. I might respectfully suggest that the current security team be relieved at the top and perhaps all the way down. But unless it is made accountable to all of us, it won’t really matter whose names and faces appear on the security organigram. Still, if trust can be restored, the protesters may well cease protesting. Then maybe we can get down to the hard work of figuring out collectively how we will manage the new misery inflicted on us by the provincial budget cuts.

—Alison Laywine
Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy

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