On Tuesday 2nd of February, the Capitation Committee will vote on a new Terms of Reference document. Included in this document is a controversial article – numbered 4.6 – which has proved a bone of contention since the first draft of the document was circulated before the start of this academic year.
Since last I wrote on this topic (University Times, Jan 20th), the proposed wording of the article has changed significantly. A sentence giving the Senior Dean the right to withdraw a publication in cases where College might be sued as a result of its content has been removed, leaving the proviso “to avert any risk of violence to person or damage to property”.
This reduction is a welcome one: as I have argued in the past, the Senior Dean is not a legal professional – to give him the power of accuser, prosecutor and judge in one fell swoop would have been unacceptable.
However, the current revision of the proposal remains, at its core, one which damages freedom of speech and gives a single member of college staff the role of censor. The article damages freedom of speech in three specific ways.
First, the Senior Dean is not capable of being independent in his judgements by virtue of his position. Second, the criteria for the withdrawal of a publication are subjectively defined and liable to deliberate misinterpretation. Third, the weak provisions in cases where a Senior Dean is found to have abused his/her power are not enough to dissuade such abuses.
There are cases where freedom of speech can be abused, and they have occurred in this college in recent years. These abuses are to be avoided, and the only way to do so is to set in place clear and fair rules which define what is and what is not abuse. In addition to this, it is also necessary to have an independent arbitrator to interpret these rules. The independence of this arbitrator is vital – otherwise the implementation of the regulations will not reflect their intentions.
As a result of some of the abuses of freedom of speech which took place in college over the last few years, every publication in Trinity has voluntarily subscribed to the Press Council of Ireland. This was a huge step in the right direction – where before someone unfairly targeted by a publication could either mount an expensive legal battle or keep quiet, now there is a cheap, quick and independent avenue for dispute resolution.
The excellence of the Press Council as an arbitrator of Irish media law merely highlights the inadequacy of the Senior Dean in this role and the poor and subjective definition of College’s proposed rules.
As a high-ranking member of college staff, the Senior Dean obviously has an opinion and agenda on any topic relating to how the college is run, and whether he intends it or not, these will determine to some extent his opinion on what constitutes “risk of violence to person or damage to property”. I don’t think the Senior Dean is proposing this rule because he wants to control newspapers. I do think that giving him, and all future Senior Deans, the opportunity is a bad idea.
This is an especially bad idea when the rules to be enforced are so open to interpretation. Under the proposed article, “the Senior Dean may withdraw any publication where, in his/her opinion, such immediate action is necessary to avert any risk of violence to person or damage to property.”
The Senior Dean’s opinion is quite simply not enough evidence to merit muzzling the college’s newspapers. It is also distinct from an interpretation in that an interpretation can be logically justified, while an opinion has a subjective element – and subjectivity in legislation leads to bias in its execution. When the person responsible for its execution is, by virtue of their title, biased, the problem becomes even worse.
The provisions for post hoc assessment of the validity of a Senior Dean’s decision to withdraw a publication mean that he would be essentially unmonitored in his use or abuse of his new powers.
The article makes a feeble attempt to ensure that the power of seizure is used in the spirit intended. It allows the Capitation Committee to “require full information regarding the circumstances” prompting its use, and it allows it to “investigate the nature” of the offence. These would be welcome measures, were the Senior Dean himself not the Chairperson of the Capitation Committee. The futility of an investigation headed by the subject of that investigation would be laughable were it not so serious.
Crucially, the article makes no provision for the outcome of this investigation. What I would like to know is what happens when a Senior Dean is found to have abused his power of censorship. Will the Capitation Committee remove him from the position of Chairperson? Will he face disciplinary action? I somehow doubt it. This paragraph was tacked on in the assumption that it would never be used to try to assuage the few people on the Capitation Committee willing to defend freedom of speech: I see through it.
It’s not all bad news however. The proposed Terms of Reference document has changed from the staff-written Behemoth circulated in June which threatened to withhold funding from publications who refused to toe the line, to the more considered (yet still imperfect) version discussed here, which was composed with some student consultation.
The student body’s response to this issue when it was first made aware has had an effect. The convenor of the subcommittee responsible for drafting this article, which had held its final meeting in December, circulated this diminished version last Thursday, and has reopened negotiations, proposing another meeting to be held tomorrow. For the first time, I will have the opportunity to represent Trinity Publications in my capacity as Treasurer at this meeting. Needless to say, I will fight to make sure that the issues outlined above are addressed. Those interested in the outcome of this meeting should join the “Save Freedom of Speech in Trinity” Facebook Page. It can be found at www.facebook.com/freedomofspeechTCD.
Tom Lowe is Treasurer of Trinity Publications, of which Trinity News is a member.