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Don’t target student publications

McGill cannot continue to stifle student voices

On March 5, The Daily Publications Society (DPS) – publisher of The McGill Daily and Le Délit – received a letter from McGill’s lawyers threatening legal action unless The Daily removed “any reference” to the McGillLeaks website, as well as reference to the Development and Alumni Relations documents – a number of which were marked “confidential” and “highly confidential” – that were released by McGillLeaks. The DPS was forced to concede, in part, to McGill’s demands by ceasing further publication on the content of documents made public by McGillLeaks. In response to the actions taken by McGill, the DPS issued a press release on March 12 denouncing “McGill University’s oppressive tactics.”

The Daily agrees with the DPS’s pragmatism. Extended court proceedings could threaten the very existence of the newspapers it publishes, given that the DPS is an independent, not-for-profit publishing organization with limited funds. The DPS is in an especially vulnerable position right now because it will enter into negotiations with McGill next year for a new Memorandum of Agreement (MoA), without which McGill has no obligation to release student funds to the DPS. Furthermore, The Daily thinks it would be fiscally and morally irresponsible for the DPS to conduct legal proceedings against McGill: the time, money, and resources involved would inevitably hamper the DPS’s ability to support coverage of campus issues.

By threatening student-run media with legal action, this University has yet again used its financial power in order to control student voices on campus. Already this year, McGill has forced many student groups to stop using the McGill name, unilaterally kept CKUT and QPIRG’s opt-out systems online, and issued a Provisional Protocol that severely limits the right to free assembly on campus. McGill resorts to bullying tactics to pursue its own interests, taking advantage of its financial and administrative power over campus organizations in order to suppress dissenting student voices. The DPS, the Canadian University Press, and the Milton Avenue Revolutionary Press – all student media – received threats of legal action from the University for writing about the leaked documents. However, major media outlets like the CBC and the Montreal Gazette, who had published similar stories, had not announced receiving similar threats from McGill when The Daily went to press. Potentially, McGill did not issue the same legal threat to these publications because the University understands that they have the financial clout to fight back. It seems clear that freedom of expression – in this case – is not a right but a privilege; one that is enjoyed only by those with the financial and political power to challenge McGill.

McGill’s claim that the confidentiality of the documents prohibits anyone from legally reporting on their contents is dubious given that The Daily had no role in distributing the documents. According to McGill, the documents remain confidential even after being released to the public, because they were allegedly obtained illegally. Legal counsel on behalf of McGill used this claim as the basis for censoring references to contents of the leaked documents. But can documents be called confidential in any meaningful way if they are available online, as they had been for three days when The Daily first wrote about them? And does confidentiality, even if it does exist indefinitely, trump students’ right to know about their University’s partnerships?

All universities have a duty to actively support the right to freedom of expression. The idea that an institution of higher learning would abuse its power by silencing its own students is frightening; it becomes even more worrying when one considers that this incident fits into a larger pattern of McGill’s tactics of intimidation regarding students and staff. Student media must be able to report on matters pertinent to student life without fear of financial blackmail. Otherwise, we’re letting the administration decide what we’re allowed to know. And who would want to go to a university like that?

As members of the DPS Board of Directors, Coordinating Editor Joan Moses and Production and Design editor Alyssa Favreau did not take part in the writing of or discussion about this editorial.