The University of the West Indies (UWI) is working on a new system that could give protesters wider freedoms to express themselves, but within certain limits.
Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Hilary Beckles told a news conference this afternoon at the Cave Hill campus the university was considering a US model that allows persons to enter rooms with placards where the subject of their objections is the guest speaker.
Sir Hilary said the US model allows protesters to apply to the vice-chancellor or principal for permission to carry their placards into the room where the guest is, but not to be interrupted.
“It can be in the corridors, it can be at the gate . . . but once that classroom goes into action, the guest of the institution should be heard. We are looking at other models. There are models in the US for example, where protesters accept that guests of the university should not be interrupted while they are speaking in the classroom,” Sir Hilary said.
“So all of these are new modalities we are working with to see the best global practices to protect freedom of speech and expression, but to respect the rights of guests of the institution, within the context of the rooms where they are going to speak to be able to deliver their presentation in a dignified fashion,” the UWI top official stated.
The vice chancellor was responding to a reporter’s request to state the university’s position on last month’s protest which disrupted a lecture at Cave Hill by St Vincent and the Grenadines prime minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves.
Four women, among them Lecturer in Political Science at the Cave Hill campus Dr Kristina Hinds, hijacked proceedings at the Henry Fraser Lecture Theatre for close to 15 minutes.
The protest was triggered by the prime minister’s handling of a case involving a 23-year-old former Vincentian model who was sent for psychiatric evaluation by a Kingstown magistrate following an altercation with the wife of Camillo Gonsalves, the prime minister’s son and in whose hands the Vincentian leader has placed the country’s financial affairs.
The young woman, Yugge Farrell, later claimed the younger Gonsalves had a long-running extramarital affair with her.
Despite the best efforts of campus security, the women refused to cease their incessant chants, and it took a member of the Royal Barbados Police Force to remove them from the hall.
They then moved to the lobby and continued their chants, which at times could be heard over the Vincentian leader’s voice, until more police officers, carrying high-powered rifles, escorted them from the building.
Today, Sir Hilary explained that the UWI had a “complex and dynamic” culture in which it recognized the importance of freedom of speech and dignity in social relationships.
“The university is a place where consensus is always pursued, but the very fact that you are pursuing a consensus means you don’t have it and you are looking for it . . . and therefore there are two operational principles. Our students, our academics, our administrators, they do have the right to express their disappointment and their objection to philosophies, to practices, to cultures. This is embedded in every fine institution,” he said.
“Fine institutions also say that when you have guests . . . we have to create a space whereby within the culture of protest, that guest also has the right to be heard and to be heard in an environment of dignity. Our challenge is how to balance these matters,” he pointed out.
Gonsalves had said he was neither taken aback nor embarrassed by the protest.
“I was not surprised nor embarrassed by it because if you notice the people who are here were disgusted with the two or three persons who were protesting. I understand that one of them is a lecturer and they obviously could not get any students to follow them.
“If you notice, I dealt with them very politely and I am prepared to discuss whatever they think they have as an issue. At any time they can come to St Vincent and I will let them speak to all the people who know about women’s issues,” Gonsalves said.