On Feb. 15, the university released its first draft of guidelines highlighting McMaster’s commitment to freedom of expression and what it deems acceptable limits to protest. Campus activists are concerned that the guidelines unfairly constrain dissent and silence marginalized voices.

The guidelines were based on a report developed by the ad hoc committee on protest and freedom of expression. Members were selected by Patrick Deane in consultation with groups including the McMaster University Faculty Association, McMaster Students Union and Graduate Students Association.

McMaster announced their intent to consider issues of protest and freedom of expression on May 3, 2017, two months following the Jordan Peterson protests on campus.

The report outlines a number of recommendations for the university, such as the development of an online lecture series aimed at improving education about topics such as free speech and activism. The report recommends that the series be sponsored by the MacPherson Institute.

“I have found the MacPherson Institute useful, with getting help and expert knowledge about teaching, active learning and the like,” said Neil McLaughlin, a member of the committee. “I have improved my own teaching working with them, but there has not yet been a concerted effort to address directly some of the most controversial issues.”

“We are dealing with more issues than was the case in the past.  We all have things to learn, and debate.”


Neil McLaughlin
Committee member
Ad hoc committee on protest and freedom of expression

The guidelines list examples of what the university would consider acceptable and unacceptable protest. Generally speaking, the guidelines list any sort of behaviour that would impede an event’s progression as unacceptable, such as blocking the audience’s view by standing or preventing the audience from paying attention to the speaker.

“I think universities across Canada, and certainly in the US, could benefit from more attention to the dynamics of dealing with highly controversial and politically contentious issues than we have given to the topic,” said McLaughlin.

“We are dealing with more issues than was the case in the past. We all have things to learn, and debate.”

In addition to articulating the university’s stance on freedom of expression and protest, the new freedom of expression guidelines stress the responsibility for event organizers to communicate and enforce them.

In particular, in the event that dissenters do not adhere to the guidelines, organizers or moderators are asked to first inform the individual or group that they are disrupting the event and will be asked to leave should they persist. If they continue to interfere, Security Services can take action.

Although it is stated in the guidelines that speaking events should only be cancelled in extreme cases, it remains unclear what constitutes an extreme case.

Campus activists are concerned that the guidelines will unfairly constrain protest and harm marginalized groups in the community.

According to one activist, who asked to be anonymous, the guidelines excessively infringe on the right to civil disobedience.

“As an organizer, this puts me both in a dangerous position and in a position that forces me to keep silent, narrowing what I can and cannot do or say,” said the activist, who argues that white supremacy and bigotry will persist in the face of a lack of accountability.

While the university believes the new guidelines will curtail disruption efforts, activists are encouraging students to reject them.

The university secretariat will receive feedback on the guidelines until March 30.

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The original image used online for this article was not the one used in print, and has been switched for consistency.



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