The president of an on-campus socialist group, Socialist Fightback at Ryerson, had the microphone whisked away from him when he challenged the university senate at a town hall on Wednesday.
Hermes Azam was trying to challenge the university senate during a meeting arranged by the provost’s office to discuss Ryerson’s draft statement on freedom of expression.
“We’re not here to talk about the senate, we are here to talk about the statement,” said Michael Benarroch, the provost and vice-president, academic, when Azam was making a statement on how he thought the senate was handling the development of the draft statement.
“Let’s talk about the senate drafting the statement,” said Azam.
“If you ask a question about the topic of free speech, we will talk about the statement of free speech,” said Benarroch.
Azam was given the microphone back about 10 minutes later, after a teacher in the audience quoted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and commented on the hypocrisy of the situation.
Azam was one of a handful of people who voiced their concerns over Ryerson’s free speech statement in the Student Learning Centre on Wednesday.
These concerns come after leftist groups started voicing their disapproval of the wording used in the statement, saying words like “obstruct” and “disrupt” are contradictory to the nature of protest, and open to interpretation.
In response to these concerns, Andrew McWilliams, chair of the subcommittee on the freedom of expression statement, said they’re recommending to the senate that amendments be made to the draft, particularly, replacing the words “obfuscate,” “obstruct,” and “disrupt,” with the word “prevent.”
“We agreed that it wasn’t the best language and it did leave room for interpretation, [so we] changed it to ‘prevent,’ which made it a very narrow definition,” said McWilliams in an interview after the town hall.
“Unfortunately, not everybody is always going to agree with that and it will be up to senate to choose whether we’ve chosen the right word, or whether obfuscation is the right word.”
In September, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said colleges and universities will either submit free speech policies by January or face funding cuts.
The senate subcommittee began reviewing the senate statement on freedom of expression in March. Much of the feedback at the town hall was consistent with what the advisory committee received, according to McWilliams.
The subcommittee, made up of 14 people, received 20 emails offering feedback.
“We will take everything possible that was said [at the town hall] and consider where we are in the process, so a few [more] things may need to be suggested on the senate floor,” McWilliams said.
Shameem Nasrabadi, an environmental biology student who attended the town hall, said the hour-long meeting wasn’t long enough.
“It seems to be that the senators and committee members were not soliciting input from the community,” he said, “but rather seeking to defend the position they had already entrenched themselves in against the community. This wasn’t a discussion. This was a top down statement.”
Nasrabadi said there were several “egregious moments” during the town hall, the first being the microphone stripped from Azam for speaking about the senate itself.
A very direct acknowledgement of Canadian hate speech laws – and prevention of speakers who can be reasonably expected to promote hate speech based on their prior record – is something Nasrabadi would like to see added to Ryerson’s statement on freedom of expression.
Premier Ford said all statements must be consistent with the University of Chicago statement on freedom of expression. Nasrabadi and several others disapproved of language in Ryerson’s draft statement being found in the Chicago statement, which is also found in Princeton University’s statement.
The town hall was co-hosted by James Turk, the director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression. Turk broke down the process he went through to inform the statement in an interview with the Ryersonian.
Ryerson’s draft statement on freedom of expression will be taken to a senate vote on Nov. 6, before heading to the Board of Governors to form policy.