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The students doth protest too much


In the midst of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) crisis during the early fall of the last academic year, a group of students convened in front of the James Administration building to protest. Provost Anthony Masi, in a rare display of accessibility, came downstairs to speak to the gathered crowd. When one student asked why a Securitas agent had threatened a recent peaceful protest with police action, Michael Di Grappa, VP (Administration and Finance) – who had been observing the unfolding events from the edge of the crowd, suitcase in hand – blurted out “Students don’t have the right to demonstrate on campus!” Another student, somewhat aghast, opened the student handbook he had brought with him and pointed Di Grappa to the section that reads “nothing in this Article or Code shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations…” Visibly uncomfortable and left with nothing else to say, Di Grappa walked away.

Following the events of last year, the administration learned something about their students, faculty, and non-academic workers: they know their rights. The tactic the administration has adopted in response is simple: redefine rights in more convenient terms. The revised protocol on protests released to the university-wide community on November 30, is, according to the protocol itself, the rubric by which a demonstration at McGill will or won’t be “deemed to be peaceful.”

What are the metrics according to which peacefulness might be achieved? The bulk of the protocol includes things on which we might generally agree: safety, a respect for the freedom of others, the protection of property. But buried at the tail end of the protocol is the statement that the “degree of inconvenience to normal University activities, number of participants, level of noise, tone of discourse, level of anger expressed, etc.), and/or the more deliberately disruptive, and/or the longer (in terms of duration of inconvenience) […] the greater the likelihood that [the demonstration] will be deemed not to be peaceful.”

According to Di Grappa in an interview with The Daily in December 2012, the protocol is meant to be a “clarification” project, one meant to delineate the “expectations and responsibilities” of students, as well as those who might earn their ire.

What the protocol actually does is redefine a peaceful protest as one which is not disruptive or inconvenient, not loud, not angry, short in duration, and sparsely attended. The protocol may not ban protesting on campus outright, but it bans any protesting which might conceivably be effective.

Di Grappa and Masi, who are in charge of the project, solicited feedback on the protocol last semester in a series of preliminary consultations – groups consulted included SSMU, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society, and several staff and faculty unions. When all groups consulted highlighted the same concerns, the administration disregarded their feedback and released a protocol to the university-wide community that reflected no substantive changes.

Canadian and Quebec laws, as well as the University’s own student handbook, already set limitations on demonstrations that protect bystanders and those being demonstrated against. The protocol, which is being brought to Senate on January 23, and to the Board of Governors for final approval on January 29, does nothing more to protect the rights of those who wish not to participate. It does, however, allow those most likely to be demonstrated against – namely, the administration – the power to define the parametres when dissenters voice their grievances.

–The McGill Daily Editorial Board