When the Legislative Council of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) — the university’s students’ union — didn’t pass a motion endorsing a ‘yes’ vote for the Daily Publications Society’s (DPS) existence on November 2, many voiced concerns that free press on campus was in jeopardy.
The referendum, held every five years, concerned the renewal of a mandatory $6 fee per undergraduate student per semester that supports the DPS, a not-for-profit, student-run organization that publishes The McGill Daily and Le Délit, two independent student newspapers at McGill.
This year, the referendum took place between November 13 and November 17, and it resulted in the DPS winning the vote with 65 per cent of students voting ‘yes’ to the continuation of the $6 fee, despite an active ‘no’ campaign and the Legislative Council’s lack of support.
“I feel relieved that the DPS will be around for at least another five years, and that in the meantime, we’ll have the chance to spread the word about the importance of campus journalism,” said Marc Cataford, the Chair of the DPS.
According to Cataford, the referendum had a 20.7 per cent turnout — much larger than a typical SSMU voter turnout — which “renewed” his belief “that student press is deemed important by our campus population.”
According to an editorial from The McGill Tribune, some Legislative Council members who did not support the motion were concerned that supporting a ‘yes’ vote would look like an endorsement of The McGill Daily and its editorial pieces in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Some members did not want to bias their peers, and others disagreed with the student fees used to fund the paper, especially since the students paying these fees might disagree with the political views published in the paper.
Cataford mentioned that other SSMU Legislative Council members who did not endorse a ‘yes’ vote were worried they would create a “conflict of interest” between the council and the paper, and that the papers would not “hold [the council] accountable.”
“I found it alarming to see that support in the form of a public endorsement of a wording of their choice was described as something that could influence the attitude of the press toward the SSMU or that it would unfairly affect students’ votes,” said Cataford.
By declining to support the DPS, Cataford believes that the union’s Legislative Council sent “a pretty clear message that the presence of free speech outlets isn’t a priority” and that it “failed to uphold free speech and free press on campus.”
Mahaut Engérant, the Editor-in-Chief of Le Délit, McGill’s only francophone paper, said she was “disappointed” when the council decided not to endorse the DPS. “A SSMU endorsement did not mean an endorsement of all our articles or our editorial line, but rather it was meant to be a way for SSMU to recognize the value of an institution such as the free presse [sic].”
On November 15, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), an organization that “works to defend and protect the right to free expression in Canada and around the world,” published an article written by Jacqueline Houston, Opinion Editor at The McGill Tribune and former CJFE Communications and Research Assistant, criticizing the SSMU for failing to “recognize the value of a free and varied campus press.”
“Endorsing a diverse, free press isn’t a political view. It’s a principle, one that elected representatives at any level ought to uphold, and that needs to be funded,” reads Houston’s article. “McGill undergraduate students pay mandatory fees for a range of clubs and services—because they accept that it is in the student body’s collective interest to have a range of clubs and services available on campus, even if each student doesn’t directly engage or agree with all of them.”
Houston told The Varsity that the DPS winning the vote was a “win for campus free press” but still considers the events leading up to the vote “alarming,” because the ‘no’ campaign “also politicized and qualified the principle of a diverse and free campus press.”
“Student representatives should be the first to defend the very student papers that hold them accountable,” said Houston.
The SSMU did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment.