Commentary | Organizing against free speech

“No” campaign silenced student voices at the SSMU GA

As students consoled each other, exchanged looks of utter disbelief, and even wiped away tears, I left the SSMU General Assembly (GA) last week asking myself if what had occurred was fair. Was it fair that an organized movement successfully suppressed the right to free speech so fundamental to a university campus? Was it fair that the voices of students could be silenced because they were deemed undesirable? It was not fair. What transpired at the SSMU GA on October 22 represents a flagrant violation of freedom of speech and is an assault to democracy on campus.

It is telling that the “no” campaign never even remotely intended to debate the motion calling on SSMU to stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine. Under the guise of “Don’t Divide McGill,” students were encouraged – even told – to keep their mouths firmly shut. The “no” campaign assumed that university-educated students could not be expected to vigorously debate a sensitive and pressing subject in a civilized way. Fearing the sensibilities that would be offended by mere discussion of the topic, appeals to suppress freedom of expression rang out merrily across campus.

It is hard to imagine a campaign that is more degrading to McGill students. But the beauty of freedom of expression is that it protects the spread of all ideas, save for those that promote violence or hatred. Despite the absurdity and deceitfulness of their claims, the “no” campaign and all students opposed to the motion fully deserved the freedom to express themselves as they saw fit. At the GA, however, those finding themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the motion were denied that same right.

Was it fair that an organized movement successfully suppressed the right to free speech so fundamental to a university campus?

The very purpose of the GA is to give all students a voice. The decision to indefinitely postpone the motion denied them exactly that. Students who sought to put forward arguments for and against the motion were denied. Curious students who came to hear different viewpoints were denied. This denial occurred simply because the question at hand was deemed by some to be too ‘touchy’ or ‘divisive.’

It is clear that based on the support for the “no” side, the motion would not have been adopted regardless. Defeating the motion on its merits was not the purpose of those who sought to impose their will to silence the minority. The purpose was to send a message: there is a line that is not to be crossed. Students should not even attempt to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You just shouldn’t. We will strip you of your rights to speak and express yourself, if that’s what it takes. We will stop at nothing to silence all dissenting voices. That message was sent loud and clear.

Regardless, in a time where political leaders fail us, it is the duty of youth to stand up and unleash their diverse voices for all to hear – particularly when it concerns the state of an oppressed people. Yet as some brave students stood humbly with their motion in hand and voices at the ready, the crushing weight of censorship struck a blow to their right to expression. They were muzzled simply because they had views that didn’t align with the prevailing tide of public opinion on campus. They were denied the opportunity to speak because they dared to make their views public and attempted to debate them in an official way. The small faction of students who orchestrated this deliberate violation of freedom of expression, as well as every single individual who voted in favour of postponement, have degraded this freedom’s value on campus. They have demonstrated their contempt for opposing ideas and their cowardice toward debate. Their actions are an embarrassment to the values a university should espouse.

There will no doubt be people who scoff at this and suggest that the rules of order for the GA formed a sound basis for indefinite postponement. They are wrong. We as a student body have no obligation to blindly follow rules that undermine our freedom of expression.

Indeed, the act of silencing a dissenting minority also runs afoul of the principles that the Supreme Court of Canada has enshrined in our constitutional law. In R v. Keegstra, a seminal freedom of speech case in Canada, the court explained, “Attempts to confine the guarantee of free expression only to content which is judged to possess redeeming value or to accord with the accepted values strike at the very essence of the value of the freedom. […] If the guarantee of free expression is to be meaningful, it must protect expression which challenges even the very basic conceptions about our society.”

There will no doubt be people who scoff at this and suggest that the rules of order for the GA formed a sound basis for indefinite postponement. They are wrong. We as a student body have no obligation to blindly follow rules that undermine our freedom of expression. Indeed, as the great Martin Luther King once said from the dark shadows of a Birmingham jail, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

The act of indefinitely postponing the motion in question was a grave and most reprehensible violation of the freedom of expression of students at the GA. It insulted the very premise of democracy on campus. I, along with many other students on campus, refuse to accept this. I refuse to be silenced for views that I am legitimately entitled to hold and express. I refuse to be told to sit down, shut up, and go home, because someone disagrees with my ideas. However, in the wake of the GA, many students are left with nothing but the deafening sound of silence. In the meantime, I ask students to have faith. For the celebrated King also told us that “no lie can live forever” because “truth crushed to earth, will rise again.”


Nadir Khan is a U3 Political Science student. To contact him, please email nadir.khan2@mail.mcgill.ca.

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