News  Mendelson defends free speech at town hall

Students question University’s stance on contentious events

Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson laid out McGill’s policy on controversial events and fielded questions from students at a packed town hall last Thursday in the Shatner building. Referencing three events that have stirred debate over the past year – a talk by a Turkish professor on the Armenian genocide, a flag display by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, and a recent Choose Life event that ended in two arrests – Mendelson indicated that the University would maintain a policy of respecting freedom of speech, as long as the events in question are not hateful or slanderous.

Mendelson noted, though, that while the University respects students’ right to protest, this right is subject to certain restrictions.

“The University has been very open with respect to protest, but it also has limits. One of the limits we are absolutely adamant about is protest that disrupts the free expression of ideas on campus,” he said. “[It] crosses the line because that protest is attacking or undermining the core value of a university, that is meant to educate, transmit, and discover knowledge.”

When SSMU VP External Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan asked whether SSMU’s equity policy and constitution would be considered for contentious events, Mendelson said that the University’s stance would be determined independently.

“If there is an event that is approved for university space, then we don’t look to others outside the university – and SSMU is outside the university, though students are not. We don’t look to expressions from stakeholders to determine whether we are going to have the event,” Mendelson said, noting that he takes the same approach when concerns are raised by other interest groups, such as private donors or professors.

While Mendelson said that he evaluates controversial campus events personally and on a case-by-case basis, students like VP Clubs and Services Sarah Olle and Science Senator Mitran Mehta both commented that they found this policy arbitrary and problematic.

“The University holds responsibility not only to students but to the local community,” Mehta said. “There are some events out there that want to express a unilateral point of view. I feel there should be general guideline to work from.”

Karina Gold, U3 Political Science and Latin America studies, asked Mendelson to define more specifically when he felt a campus group was using hate speech or denying another group’s existence.

“I’m not a lawyer. We have to make a distinction between hate speech and speech we may find hateful,” Mendelson replied. “Just because someone finds something very disturbing and very problematic does not make something hate speech.”

Referencing his time at university in the sixties, Mendelson said events that make students feel uncomfortable – provided they are not hateful – are an important part of student life.

“If you spend three years at university and are not troubled by something you hear, then we aren’t doing our job. You’re supposed to be troubled by things you hear, you’re supposed to be upset by them, supposed to challenge them. You’re supposed to be engaged by them. The mere fact there is an idea out that is deeply disturbing to you is something we have to protect,” Mendelson said. “As long as the idea does not violate the law – so hate speech is out, slander is out – the public expression of ideas is fine.”