In a week that saw homes in the suburb north of Toronto's York University covered in swastikas, and synagogues and Jewish cemeteries vandalized in the neighbourhood on the south, the campus itself was no island for idyllic reflection. With clowns to the left of them and jokers to the right, Jewish students were stuck in the middle with York.
The campus events [were] sponsored by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903, representing all graduate students, teaching assistants and contract faculty at York University. Separate from its collective bargaining activities, the union engages in a variety of international solidarity projects… One student on a solidarity mission has reported to York's CUPE local that he is proud to be working alongside the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--an illegal organization under Canada's anti-terrorism legislation.
According to reports, the presentation last week included yet another rehash of the 2002 fighting in Jenin. The union's speakers did not witness it themselves, but were able to relate second- and third-hand accounts…which have been shown to be false by Human Rights Watch and other objective sources.
The bombast continued several days later with some guerrilla theatre by a group styled Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, along with members of CUPE 3903 and others. Half of the group dressed as soldiers and the other half as Arab women, setting up mock checkpoints…on the York campus where the play-acting soldiers proceeded to terrorize and assassinate their helpless female prey. The military costumes sported an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) logo on the front and the message "born to kill" on the back.
Jewish organizations on campus responded to these events by conducting a vigil on behalf of victims of terrorism. Their T-shirts condemned the bombing of civilians...and their counter-demonstration entailed drawing police-style chalk silhouettes of victims on the ground. York's administration is investigating the organizing group for failing to follow the terms of its permit by coming indoors with the vigil when the university wanted them to remain outside. The anti-Israel group, by contrast, presents little to investigate, as it apparently had no permit at all.
All of which raises, once again, the vexing question of free speech and its limits, if any, on campus. In Keegstra (1990) and Zundel (1992), the Supreme Court of Canada announced that inflammatory polemics and spreading false news are constitutionally protected from criminal prosecution.
What is banned by the Criminal Code is irrational hatemongering that plays to the emotions rather than to extreme politics--the swastikas appeared off-campus last week, but not the lectures and theatrics. The court has rightly concluded that a liberal society does not lightly incarcerate people for what they say rather than what they do.
That does not, however, resolve the question for a university administration. Every educational institution has race relations and sexual harassment policies, along with academic and student codes of conduct, which govern behaviour. What would be…legal on a construction site or in the park--ethnic slurs, flirtatious catcalls…--is impermissible in a classroom or campus with students to protect. Not to mention that while the intentional spreading of falsehoods may not be criminal, it is not exactly pedagogically sound.
The line to be drawn is between rhetoric and vilification. Suicide bombing and like tactics can be condemned on campus... One can express all sides of the debate on the Middle East…and any other hot button issue, even if the politics veer to the radical. After all, students are young and radicalism goes with youth. However, no vilification can take place along ethnic, nationality, religious or other similar lines.
It would have been wrong, for example, to play-act Palestinians in checkered headcoverings; to the Jewish students' credit no such activity occurred at York… By contrast, the mock Israeli uniforms, and the cumulative effect of the constant Israel-bashing on campus, crossed this line, smearing York's Israeli and Jewish students as belonging to a nation of killers. To treat this week's two demonstrations equally would be to misconceive the principles governing campus life.
In an e-mail from [SPHR] recruiting students to participate in the checkpoint theatrics, the organizers exhorted their constituents to action with the cry: "WHOSE CAMPUS? OUR CAMPUS." It is not. It is everyone's campus, and the administration has the responsibility to ensure that it remains that way.
(Ed Morgan is a law professor at the University of Toronto.)