Commentary  In praise of occupation

Occupations are integral to the university’s vitality

The ongoing debates about the administration’s Draft Protocol on Protests and the impending revisions of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures circle round and round one issue without confronting it head-on: occupations. We are having these debates because of the two student occupations of James building offices last school year, and the central issue is whether such occupations are a form of peaceful protest or a noxious obstruction of University affairs.

The latter is the administration’s official position – for instance, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson remarked during the #6party that occupations are never peaceful. This position is mistaken. The administration and the McGill community at large ought to appreciate the role occupations have in university life. To occupy the offices of the administration is the sacred right of students, and an indispensible means by which administrative authority is kept in check. To attempt to root it out is to attempt to eradicate student freedom as such.

The administration’s position rests on a certain reading of the Code of Student Conduct. According to their reading, an assembly of students is no longer peaceful if students either knowingly obstruct University activities (Article 5) or “contrary to express instructions […] knowingly enter or remain in any University building, facility, room, or office” (Article 6). In other words, if a protest or demonstration violates any article of the Code of Student Conduct, then it is not a peaceful assembly.

The Code actually says just the opposite: if a protest or demonstration is peaceful, then it does not violate any article of the Code. At the end of the article on disruption, the Code states: “Nothing in this Article or Code shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, lawful picketing, or to inhibit free speech” (Article 5c).

On the administration’s reading, this article is superfluous; a determination of whether an action is obstructive or “contrary to express instructions” is made prior to a determination of whether it is a peaceful demonstration, with the effect that any obstructive or disobedient action cannot, for that reason, be peaceful. There is no reason for Article 5c to be there, since it never comes into effect.

But 5c is a restriction on the application of the Code. The framers of the Code surely put Article 5c there for a reason, and presumably they meant it to say what it says. The reason that nothing in the Code “shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, lawful picketing, or to inhibit free speech,” is because peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, lawful picketing, and free speech are themselves essential university activities, and hence cannot obstruct those activities or be subjected to the commands of administrators. A university can no more carry on without these activities than it can carry on without teaching and research.

If students are peacefully demonstrating their views, then they cannot disrupt the administrative activities of the University, no matter how many meetings are cancelled, because the administrative activities of the University are subordinated by the Code itself to the peaceful demonstration of views. The point of administration is to help foster and facilitate such peaceful demonstrations. The purpose and highest calling of the University is to make possible the free and frank speech that is the essence of peaceful contestation and non-violent coping with disagreement and conflict.

Being reasonable means being open to the giving and receiving of reasons, to the discussion and deliberation in which reasons can be given and received. And being peaceful means pursuing and preserving the conditions under which such reasonable discussion can take place. On these definitions, students can act – and have acted – reasonably and peacefully in occupying administrators’ offices. The students who entered Mendelson’s office last February were engaged in a time-honoured and traditional practice. They confronted the acts of those possessing authority with the only kind of power that those without authority can muster: the power of appearing together and speaking in common, demanding that their concerns be taken into account. This is not merely one form of peaceful demonstration amongst others, it is the archetype of peaceful demonstration.

Such occupations cannot possibly disrupt University activities because they seek to compel administrators to explain and justify themselves, and to listen to the reasons and arguments of those who feel ignored or trampled on by their decisions. Hence, occupiers can also have good reason to ignore “express instructions” to abandon their occupation. Such commands are often attempts to refuse a conversation about the administration’s policies. As such, they are illegitimate.

It is a good thing for this university, and for its officers, to expect that administrative decisions that fly in the face of the repeatedly and properly expressed wishes of groups of students will lead to the occupation of administrators’ offices. Administrators need to expect this because otherwise their power of decree will invariably lead them further and further away from the deeply held opinions and cherished wishes of  students. Occupation and other forms of student and faculty direct action are crucial checks on administrative tyranny at universities. Remember, McGill wouldn’t even have systems of student and faculty self-governance without the direct actions, including the occupations, of the 1960s and 1970s.

William Clare Roberts is an assistant professor in Political Science at McGill. He can be reached at