A Cowardly Concession

The Varsity (Online Edition), October 26th, 2006.

On Monday, Hart House hosted a debate between candidates for the November 13th election of Toronto’s mayor.  Three candidates were invited – Stephen LeDrew, David Miller, and Jane Pitfield.  Among the 38 registered candidates, these are the only three who have any chance of being elected Mayor of Toronto.

A large and excited audience filed into the Great Hall at 6:30 to see and hear them.  As the spectators took their seats, they found that someone else was already making a speech.  The speaker was one of the 35 candidates who were not invited. He carried a large, dirty broom which he waved in the air and banged on the floor.  He ranted incoherently at the top of his lungs. He did so for a full hour, as the spectators’ mood shifted from amusement to embarrassment to anger.

At the back of the Hall, an impromptu strategy conference took place.  Debate organizers, Hart House employees, and representatives of the mayoral campaigns dithered anxiously.  Spectators could make out only whispered fragments of phrases over the ongoing harangue from the stage — “university policy,” “freedom of speech,” and “the media.”   Meek delegates from this group were periodically dispatched to the stage, where they pleaded unsuccessfully with the wild-eyed orator.

Campus security officers stood by, idle.  Trained in handling unruly people and making safe arrests, they apparently had orders to not get involved.  Instead, the organizers’ strategy was to postpone the debate until the candidate decided he was ready to leave.  Twice, the audience was asked to leave the room for 15 minutes, and dutifully did so.  At 7:30, the uninvited speaker finally stalked off, followed by news cameras, and shouting confused threats.  The debate began an hour late.

The interloper should have been forcibly escorted off the stage and out of the building at 6:30 sharp.   He had no legal or moral right to do what he did. The Constitution protects freedom of speech from restriction by the government.  Hart House is not a part of the government, so this freedom is irrelevent. His right to mount the stage and speak to the audience without permission was no stronger than his right to enter your home and start speaking to you without your permission.

It is true that the public was invited to this debate.  However, all invitations are extended with either implicit or explicit conditions.  The implicit condition on an invitation to any public gathering is that the invitee obey certain customary rules. The basic rule of organized debate is that the featured debaters do most of the talking, and spectators ask questions only when invited by the moderator to do so.
This rule is neither arbitrary nor unjust.  It is what distinguishes fruitful conversation from chaos.

Allowing all 38 candidates to speak in turn would be little better than having no rules whatsoever.  The fact is that the opinions of the three leading candidates are much more important than the opinions of the other 35.  It is only LeDrew, Miller, and Pitfield who have a chance of obtaining power over our city.   Almost all voters will choose between them.  For these reasons, it is especially important that we hear what they have to say.

The other 35 might well have important contributions to make.  They should make them using any of the various soapboxes at their disposal — letters to the editor, blogs, press releases, etc.  However, it is entirely legitimate for a private entity like Hart House to identify the leading candidates, organize a debate among them, set the rules, and require everyone to abide by them.

Why were they so afraid to do so?  The tentative attitude displayed by the authorities on Monday night is appalling.  A large group of people were forced to waste an hour of their time.  Politicians may think twice before attending University events in the future if similar disruptions are inevitable.  The interloper got exactly what he wanted – a captive audience and media attention. On www.citynews.ca , he was honoured with a headline, a photograph, and the majority of the paragraphs in the article about the debate.

U of T’s “Policy on the Disruption of Meetings” is available at http://www.utoronto.ca/govcncl/pap/policies/disrupt.html. It states that if someone obstructing an event “refuse[s] to leave and it is not possible to remove them without risking violent resistance, the meeting should be recessed or adjourned.”  In short, if someone refuses to accept the rules of organized debate, U of T’s policy is to abandon the debate unless and until the obstructor decides to allow it to continue.

“Cowardice” is not too strong a word to describe this policy.  The world is filled with people who would love to impose their ideas by out-shouting their opponents and ignoring inconvenient rules.  Most of them adopt such strategies because their ideas cannot stand up in an environment of careful scrutiny and organized debate – exactly the environment which a University must foster.  Monday night’s interloper was just such a person.   God save us if more people like him learn just how timid our leaders are in the face of flagrant and unjustified challenges to the rules of civil debate.