The campus press is a watchdog, don’t chain it

By Mick Sweetman
Managing Editor

This week has seen the campus press making the news and much as covering it.

The Gazette at Western University is in a hot dispute with the University Students’ Council (USC) over plans to move the paper into a space about half the size of its current office, reportedly to accommodate the needs of the multi-faith room next door.

In a Jan. 16 article The Gazette’s Editor-in-Chief Gloria Dickie outlines a story of conflict between the USC and The Gazette stemming from a “report card” that was published in April that gave the USC executives a B minus average. Not all that bad of a grade to be honest.

Shortly after publication, copies of the issue went missing from the stands. When school started up again in the fall the USC executive, perhaps taking a page from Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s media strategy, said they would only conduct interviews with Gazette reporters over email and would not do in-person or phone interviews.

The Gazette, like The Dialog, is not fully independent and is one of the few large campus newspapers that still published by a student union. At times this relationship can be a tense one as being a credible newspaper requires that it reports fairly and accurately on the student union that publishes it–including things that the student union might not be happy about seeing in print.

While the Gazette and the USC are still talking, the experience underlines that ultimately the campus press is accountable to its readers, students–not student unions or an institution’s administration.

Meanwhile, what is happening at McGill University strikes at the heart of the campus press’ role as a watchdog of the multi-billion dollar post-secondary sector. McGill has applied to the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec asking for permission to disregard Access to Information (ATI) requests that they are obligated by law to disclose.

Image by Amina Batyreva / McGill Daily

The targets of McGill’s application are 14 students. What makes this application notable is the fact that it seeks not only to discard specific requests but also seeks a ban on future applications “submitted by the respondents or students of McGill or student journalists of The McGill Daily and The Link (Concordia University) or by persons associated to McGilliLeaked or by persons that could reasonably be linked to such requestors.”

Lola Duffort, news editor for the McGill Daily, said, “What we’re really worried about is that the application is preemptive. The whole point to Access to Information laws are they impose transparency on institutions and if intuitions get to decide when those laws apply to them, then those laws are nullified.”

If McGill gets its way, it will essentially be above the law. Requests could be denied if McGill decides they are “overly broad”, “frivolous or target trivial documents and information”, “similar or identical to previous requests”, could be considered to be “associated with categories of documents and information published on McGilliLeaked” (entire years going back to 2007 are categories), or are “Intended to fail”.

In the application McGill tries to paint the requests as “systemic” and “abusive” and says they are “essentially as a retaliation measure against McGill in the aftermath of the 2011-2012 student protests.” McGill also alleges that the respondents coordinated the requests in a “complex system to acquire documents and information”.

To Erin Hudson, the Canadian University Press Quebec bureau chief and a former McGill Daily news editor, this is a familiar story.

During the student strike some students felt they were being labeled if they were active in the strike and were being monitored, there were security files on them,” said Hudson, “To accuse students filing ATI requests of a conspiracy harkens back to those days.”

Hudson knows how important access to information is, an award-winning story she wrote about security at McGill would have been impossible without information from ATI requests.

Attacks on the freedom of the campus press are serious and for all of our sakes, let’s hope they fail.

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The campus press is a watchdog, don’t chain it