Commentary  Respect our representatives

When last week’s Choose Life event “Echoes of Holocaust” ended with the arrest of two McGill students, many argued that this could have been avoided if the administration had honoured SSMU Council’s resolution that the event not be held in the first place.

Last Thursday’s Controversial Events Town Hall with Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson was a prime opportunity to address this recent altercation and the broader issues it raises. Initially conceived in response to a talk last year in which a speaker denied the hisotricity of the Armenian genocide, as well as the display of flags on Lower Field commemorating casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Town Hall was advertised as “an open forum for all students to share their thoughts about controversial events on our campus.” Unfortunately, Mendelson maintained the University’s characteristic laissez-faire approach to controversial events, one that leaves him with all the power to decide when to make exceptions and intervene.

Mendelson started the town hall with a speech outlining the administration’s current beliefs, a move that indicated not interest in student input, but a continued adherence to the University’s old stance, which currently does not recognize the line between fostering a diversity of opinion and actively permitting hateful, hostile speech. Mendelson asserted that a university experience should include at least once instance of being “troubled by something you hear” – but he conflates being “troubled by” with being actively harmed by speech. Events like Choose Life’s “Echoes of the Holocaust” and Armenian Genocide denier Türkkaya Ataöv’s talk in early 2009 created a hostile environment for many students, which can actually stifle the dissent of those targeted by hateful speech.

Mendelson justified Choose Life going ahead with their event despite SSMU’s censure, and the University’s inaction on it, on the grounds that “SSMU is outside the University, though students are not.” We take issue with this logic. SSMU executives are students, and are elected by other students to represent their needs to the University. It seems nonsensical therefore to ignore SSMU Council’s recommendations and still claim to desire to communicate with the 20,000 students it represents.

According to Mendelson, the University has no obligation to honour SSMU’s wishes. Yet it retains the ability to silence or limit protests, like the one that disrupted “Echoes of the Holocaust,” that could permit students to bypass an administration unresponsive to their elected officials.

The University has its priorities wrong when it comes to free speech. Allowing the expression of hateful views – denial of genocide, comparison of women who have had abortions to Nazis – while limiting protest and ignoring the way hostile events silence the people they attack is a seriously flawed policy. If Mendelson and the University genuinely respect student input on the clubs and events that impact campus life, we urge them to honour the collective voice of the student body.