Statement by President and Vice-Chancellor H. Wade MacLauchlan

February 28, 2006

Dear Colleagues,

The subject of this newsletter is the decision of The Cadre to print the now-notorious 12 Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, the response of administration and the Student Union, and the debates that have resulted.

I expect that by the weekend of February 5th most colleagues were following the reactions around the world to the publication and re-publication of the caricatures. When the news broke on CBC that the cartoons were in the February 8th issue of The Cadre, making it the first Canadian paper to publish them, I was shocked. Why should we choose to repeat an act that had caused so much offence and trouble around the world, and that was considered a religious insult by Muslims everywhere?  I said to the editorial team at The Cadre: “This is jumping on a bandwagon that has already run over the cliff.” 

As I returned from the Student Centre and my visit to The Cadre offices, the CBC cameras were already in pursuit demanding a comment. I said I needed some time to think; fortunately I had a lead on them.  The media are not in the business of giving one time to think.  My assessment was that there were great risks for UPEI and for our learning environment, and that the publication of the cartoons was a reckless invitation to disorder and humiliation.

Based on this assessment, it was decided not to permit the distribution of The Cadre on UPEI property. Fewer than 100 copies of the paper were gathered up by UPEI security personnel. There were approximately 200 in circulation by that time.  1700 copies of the paper remained in the hands of The Cadre or the Student Union. By late Wednesday, the Student Union, as owner of The Cadre, indicated its opposition to the publication of the caricatures and requested the return of the papers.  The Student Union issued the following statement:

While the Student Union supports the freedom of the press, there is also a sense that with that freedom comes the responsibility to balance freedom and responsibility effectively, a consideration that we feel was not accommodated in this case. While these cartoons were reproduced in The Cadre to inform students of the issues at hand and were in no way meant to inflict any further injury, it is now apparent that we must take into account the overwhelming reaction that these cartoons have caused worldwide and therefore we must react accordingly. It is also to be noted that there is a great deal of sensitivity involved with this contentious issue, a fact personified by the recent outrage and riots that were sparked in direct result of the publication of these cartoons. In consideration of this, in respect to those significantly affected, and for the overall well being of the UPEI community, it is felt that this action was essential. We reaffirm that despite this action, no further insult was ever intended by the publication of these cartoons in The Cadre.

We would like to extend apologies to all members of the Islamic community on PEI and across Canada who have, in any way, been detrimentally affected by The Cadre's original decision to print these cartoons.

In the three weeks since the events of February 8-10, there has been time for reflection and comment.  There has also been time to interact with students, colleagues and members of the wider community. At a February 13th meeting with Muslim students and with our colleague Mian Ali, who showed such leadership through this matter, I asked the students how they felt on campus in the aftermath of the controversy.  They responded that, for the first time since they had been at UPEI, other students were asking them in an engaged way about their faith. I cannot believe that these would be the conversations if the cartoons had remained in circulation.  I had the same thoughts at our International Students Luncheon on February 10th, which is one of the most remarkable events of our academic year, with 300 people gathering to support international students and to celebrate the richness and diversity they represent at UPEI.

I was especially proud of the leadership shown by the Student Union in addressing a situation that was obviously not of its choosing.  After initially taking a position favouring the editorial autonomy of the paper, the Student Union moved to demand that the remaining copies of the paper be returned.

We can all be impressed by an interview that Student Union President Ryan Gallant gave to the CBC on the Thursday morning, offering a sophisticated explanation of the decision of the Student Union to withdraw its initial support of The Cadre.  Ryan described the Student Union’s “evolution of thought” in the following terms:

“Well it was sort of an evolution of thought yesterday and I am sure everyone can appreciate it was a fairly stressful day in dealing with this situation. First of all it was seen flat out as a freedom of the press, freedom of speech kind of thing but as the day progressed and facts became more apparent we became aware that that wasn’t perhaps the most accurate way of depicting the situation” …

“There is definitely an evolution of thought like I said. I guess it is a fine line that we are looking at on a very complex issue and I find myself I guess straddling that line in some ways. I guess the limitation that we came to was the idea that freedom of the press is not absolute and I disagree with the notion that the press has absolute control over everything at press. There is also a responsibility to balance it with justice, to portray things properly. So there is a level as a liberal democracy in Canada of having freedom to express what we want to but there is also a level of control and in terms of the ethical side, I think that was the part where we came in where, you know, if you are balancing the publication of a cartoon versus people who had real concerns about their safety and really about offending the entire Muslim community which I thinks is 1.1 to 1.3 billion people around the world, that the frivolous publication of a cartoon that has little or no value is definitely not enough to outweigh those other consequences. ”

This is a wonderful demonstration of the abilities of a UPEI student and of our student leadership, to articulate on public radio how one set of ethical considerations outweighs another, and to reach that decision in a time-limited, stressful situation. Even in the face of such a sophisticated explanation, the CBC persisted in implying that the change in position by the Student Union had been arrived at because of my influence.  On this question too, the Student Union showed offered a straightforward, subtle response:

MAIR: “Now I understand you met with the university president Wade MacLauchlan, is this right, four times?”

GALLANT: “Several times, yes. Some were discussing a few issues but yes, it was four times yesterday.”

MAIR: “Now was he trying to influence your thinking on this at all?”

GALLANT: “No certainly not. We just had a frank discussion on what we both thought about the issues and while I think we were fairly close together in terms of our opinion but like I said, it is a fine line that separates people on this issue. So no, he wasn’t trying to influence our decision. We were just trying to sort of discuss it and see where our concerns would be.”

 Neither the Student Union nor the UPEI administration would have chosen or expected on the Wednesday morning of February 8th prior to the release of The Cadre to be in the situation presented by the publication of the cartoons. But, once the paper was out and the cartoons were in circulation at UPEI, and once the national and international media jumped on the story, all of which takes place in the space of minutes, one has no choice but to respond.  UPEI could defend the editorial autonomy of the student newspaper, or it could take a stand that we would not permit the circulation on our campus of images that have caused religious offence and significant disorder all over the world. It is not an easy call: press freedom versus public disorder and religious humiliation.  But, it is a call that had to be made, even though we didn’t choose to create the situation.

Some will say that we made the wrong call. It has been said that the role of the University should be limited to providing security to control against any violent reactions. That would be similar to the view taken by The Western Standard in its decision to publish the cartoons.  I believe the University has a broader set of responsibilities and considerations to bear in mind. The ultimate obligation of a university is to provide and continually enhance a positive and dynamic learning environment. Universities must become ever better and richer as places of learning and animated debate. Yes, those debates should be robust and fully engaged, and we should be testing controversial ideas.  But, our openness to controversy is not a licence to jump on bandwagons that have already caused enormous insult and disorder all over the world. And, with all due respect to the autonomy of the editorial team at The Cadre, we cannot avoid the fact that, while they are owned by the Student Union, they operate under the banner of the
University of Prince Edward Island.

Is UPEI a more positive, dynamic and animated learning environment today than we would be if the cartoons had been left in circulation for the intervening three weeks, and their publication defended by the University as free speech? That is the core question.  While I respect others who take a different view on this, I am absolutely convinced that our learning environment is better for having limited the publication of the caricatures. Students and colleagues are talking, in and out of class, about religious beliefs and differences, and about press freedom and responsibility. We are more alert to how intricately UPEI and PEI are laced into the global context, and to the incendiary nature of our world. However we come out on the publication or non-publication of the caricatures, we cannot avoid the conclusion that things are very fragile.  In a context of such fragility, we do not have the luxury of justifying every act by saying: “Let the chips fall where they may.”  As Student Union President Ryan Gallant put it so eloquently, we must take account of “the ethical side”.

I was truly proud of how Ryan articulated the situation, and how he openly acknowledged that we were dealing with a “fine line”.  He showed that speech has to be more than insisting on something, or making an argument.   He modeled speech and a thought process that combines courage and humility, with responsibility and a sense of proportion.  As a university community, we continue to engage with these issues. Next week, there will be two high profile lectures.  On March 7th, international journalist Gwynne Dyer will speak at
7 pm in the Duffy Amiptheatre, and on March 9th, Riad Saloojee of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (Canada) will give a lecture, also in the Duffy Ampitheatre at 7 pm.

The measure of whether we are doing the right thing is not the heat of the controversy, but whether we are continually building an active, engaged, dynamic and robust learning environment. As these debates go on, we can be proud that this is precisely what we are doing at UPEI today.



H. Wade MacLauchlan
President and Vice-Chancellor