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MSU hosts free speech town hall In response to Doug Ford’s mandate, the university is staying firmly committed to its free expression guidelines

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Photos by Kyle West

By: Anastasia Gaykalova

On Nov. 14, students and other members of the McMaster community met at TwelvEighty to join McMaster Students Union president Ikram Farah, McMaster University president Patrick Deane and associate vice president (Equity and Inclusion) Arig al Shaibah in a discussion about how the university is responding to Ontario premier Doug Ford’s free-speech policy directive.

The mandate was promised during Ford’s campaign and calls on post-secondary institutions across Ontario to establish a “free-speech policy” that includes a definition of free speech and embodies principles based on the University of Chicago “Statement on Principles of Free Expression,” which states that schools should not “shield students from ideas or opinions that they disagree with or find offensive.”

According to Ford, if universities do not comply with the directive, they will face funding cuts.

Nevertheless, most of the MSU’s town hall event focused on the topic of free speech more broadly, not the nuances of Ford’s recently promised directive.

According to Deane, the university is seeking to ensure that it is a healthy place for disagreement. He cited the Socrates Project as an example of a project that exemplifies the university’s commitment to free expression.

Deane explained at Ford’s directive does not ask universities to include the freedom to protest in their free speech policies, which to Deane makes the directive incomplete. Deane affirmed that the university needs to comply with the government while staying true to the beliefs of the university, which recognizes the right to protest.  

Deane says the university’s own “free expression guidelines” serve this function.

At the event, Shaibah stressed the importance of dissent. Some attendees were concerned with how the university will ensure the safety of participants and speakers in the event of protest at events. Deane explained that a large part of it will lie in the actions undertaken prior to an event.

For instance, it is the responsibility of the organizers of a particular event to recognize how controversial the speaker they are inviting is and make accommodations, such as the addition of a mediator, accordingly. He explained that the use of force should be a last resort.

Deane said that protesters are allowed to disagree, but they cannot strip rights from others, particularly speakers. He stressed the need balance rights and ensure that force is not the answer.

Some attendees also brought up Jordan Peterson, whose lecture at McMaster in March 2017 was disrupted by campus activists. These students asked how safety will be maintained should the university host a controversial figure like Peterson again.

According to Farah, students on both sides were harmed and threatened by Peterson then, creating an even larger issue than the protest of the event itself.

Deane said students wishing to protest are encouraged to look at the guidance document, which ensures protest is peaceful and allows for debate.

This conversation turned into a discussion about the de-platforming of speakers. Some attendees argued that expression of opinion is a right but being granted a platform is not. According to Deane, the university will only engage in de-platforming if the opinions voiced violate the law.

Overall, McMaster will aim to comply with Ford’s policy, but also seek to preserve students’ right to “acceptable” forms of protest. The university will be submitting a statement on the recognition of the right to protest to the province.

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