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In my opinion

How to provide a safe and proper environment for campus debate

Shouting down controversial speakers and obstructing campus events are not new phenomena, and there are ways to handle it appropriately.


Each generation learns tolerance, just as each generation explores the limits of its political leverage and its moral and political relativism. On October 16, 1972, members of a group calling themselves the McGill Student Movement (known by the not-yet-ironic abbreviation “MSM”) disrupted and delayed for 30 minutes a speech on U.S. foreign policy delivered by then highly controversial invited speaker Zbigniew Brzezinski in the main auditorium of the university’s arts building. As Dr. Brzezinski prepared to speak, both protestors and supporters of the event stormed the stage. The speech resumed only after protestors were forcibly ejected from the auditorium by security guards. Robert Bell, the university’s principal, apologized to the crowd for the disruption.

The chaos captured in the McGill Daily student paper’s coverage of the event will sound familiar to many observers of recent events on campuses in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. So will the motivations and the arguments of the participants on all sides. To the assertion of the protestors that Dr. Brzezinski, as a representative of the forces of oppression, should not be allowed to speak on campus, some members of the crowd responded that even Hitler had a right to speak. In an editorial the next day, the Daily supported the strategy and goals of the protestors, but criticized their tactics: “While disruption is a useful and necessary political tactic, it can be used successfully only under certain objective conditions. These conditions were not present on Monday. The MSM had failed to do the necessary mobilization of students against Brzezinski, and the lack of concrete political education on the question of the disruption contributed to the isolation of the MSM in this action.”

The basic positions then were the same as they are now, and so are the debates about permissible tactics – both for protestors and for university administrations. There are those who argue that some people have no right to speak to a community because of who they are or what they represent, and that their harmful presence and their hurtful words should not be tolerated. Others argue that even the most offensive speakers have a right to speak and that it is in the community’s larger interest to enforce that right. When moderate voices manage to be heard in this polarizing debate, they argue that while everyone has a right to freely express ideas, not all speech is appropriate in all contexts.

For university administrators faced with the decision of whether to host a controversial speaker, or with how to respond to an escalating and potentially violent protest or counter-protest, it is important to go back to first principles and to our core mission: we run institutions of higher learning on behalf of the wider community and for the benefit of the public. Diversity of views and the ability to explore ideas are crucial to our mission. We must provide a safe and appropriate environment for discussion and debate. We are entrusted with deciding when physical safety trumps intellectual exploration, but we are also trusted to not be bullied or intimidated out of carrying out the essential elements of our institution’s academic mission.

This requires both courage and a solid grasp of the principles of risk management. It requires us to balance the legitimate interest of our community to be safe, the legitimate interest of our colleagues and students to explore knowledge, and the legitimate interest of the community to get from the university what it expects, deserves and pays for: education and the production of new knowledge.

My own approach to this delicate balance has been to:

  1. Prepare the ground for unpopular or controversial events or speakers by opening dialogue with stakeholders early. People get upset when they feel they haven’t been heard or are being ignored. They are more tolerant when they know their legitimate grievances are known and acknowledged. They are also more likely to organize a counter-event rather than obstruct an upcoming one.
  2. Take on security costs that are not an undue burden on the institution, having regard to the scarce resources we steward.
  3. Set up the event physically to minimize the chances of escalation between opposing groups of supporters, with clearly articulated ground rules ahead of time. Demonstration is fine. Expressing opinions is fine. Physical violence is not. Disruption can be tolerated and should be expected to a certain degree, but obstruction is not.
  4. Resolutely, and with no apology, make the decision to cancel an event or speaker when, despite all efforts, the risk to life, property or institutional reputation is too high. In my experience, if most of our constituents see that we have gone, in good faith, above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that a controversial event can take place, and if they see that our efforts have been insufficient, most of them will support our decision.

Students in these situations are often the most active and vocal demonstrators on all sides. As educators as well as administrators, we have to help them learn through experience about tolerance and diversity of ideas and opinions. That learning process was taking place on campuses in the ’60s and before, it is going on now, and it will not go away. Part of our job is to moderate the wider community’s reaction to this sometimes noisy and unruly learning process and to provide a space in which it can unfold in relative physical and intellectual safety. That space is a university, and our job is to administer it.

Andre Costopoulos is vice-provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta.

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  1. John Smith / April 25, 2017 at 04:43

    Interesting that excluded Is the resolution to hold members of the community, who act out inappropriately in protest, accountable through legal and institutional means. Suspension/dismissal should be considered for those who cannot be civil.

  2. Mark Mercer / April 26, 2017 at 14:58

    “Resolutely, and with no apology, make the decision to cancel an event or speaker when, despite all efforts, the risk to life, property or institutional reputation is too high.” How could it possibly happen in Canada that life, property, or reputation are at intolerable risk from a talk, a debate, a movie screening? Are there no police to protect us as we go about our business? Costopoulos should give us an example of an event he thinks university administrators would be right to cancel. I can’t think of any.

  3. Mark Mercer / April 26, 2017 at 15:09

    We can ignore the risk to institutional reputation bit. The surest way for a university to put its institutional reputation at risk is for it to cancel an event in response to complaints of hate speech or threats of disruption.

  4. Lorne Carmichael / April 26, 2017 at 16:26

    No-one can be personally violated by words that they do not hear. If you feel the speech will make you feel unsafe, don’t go and don’t listen.

    The reason right wing campus speakers are being shut down is that the protesters do not want other people to hear the speech. And the reason, of course, is that they a afraid these other people might agree with it.

    An even greater fear shared by many on the “ctrl-left” is of the terrifying sound that might erupt at these meetings, especially when left wing ideas are discussed.