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Free speech showdown in Montreal

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An official moratorium on any campus discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict at Concordia University was challenged last week by the student union and members of the federal New Democratic Party.

On Sept. 18, Concordia’s Board of Governors passed an indefinite ban on all posters, discussions and activities on campus dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This decision came as a reaction to the violent protests that erupted surrounding the planned speech of Benjamin Netanyahu earlier that month.

The ban did not sit well with the Concordia Student Union (CSU), however. In a written statement, the CSU called it a “a blatant violation of students’ right to free speech and assembly.”

Last Friday, the CSU had organized a debate on the Middle East entitled “Peace and Justice in the Middle East,” featuring NDP Members of Parliament Svend Robinson and Libby Davies. Activist Judy Rebick was also supposed to participate in the event.

The trio had called the moratorium “a heavy-handed assault on the most fundamental values of freedom of expression.”

But that debate would not take place.

In a press conference last Wednesday, Concordia rector Frederick Lowy said the university would go to any means necessary to prevent the debate, and “will avail itself to all legal means.”

Indeed, at the eleventh hour, the university won an injunction from the Quebec Superior Court prohibiting the event from taking place on campus.

CSU vice-president communications Yves Engler saw it coming. The day before the event was to occur he said, “At this point it doesn’t look like it will take place on campus. They seem serious about legally blocking two democratically elected Canadian representatives from a public institution.”

“To me, this is indicative of their view of what should be a public university,” he added. “A group of administrators essentially hand-picked from a majority corporate-dominated Board of Governors is blocking democratically elected representatives from talking in a public university.”

Justice Jean Guibault, who gave the ruling, said the moratorium was the correct course of action on the part of the university, especially considering the violence that broke out at the event in September. “Freedom of expression can’t be exercised at any price,” he said.

These words echoed those of Lowy, who said, “I’m not against protest, but I am against anything that would lead to disruption and violence.”

Instead of listening to the debate, 300 students gathered off-campus to protest the ruling and cheered on Robinson and Rebick as they condemned the moratorium.

“Mr. Robinson and his confederates are coming to the aid of those who stopped free speech at Concordia on Sept. 9,” said Stephen Scheinberg, chairman of the League of Human Rights and a professor at Concordia. “These people, who now pretend to be the protectors of free speech, instead make a mockery of it.”

With the CSU threatening to take the university to the Supreme Court, Engler said the only good thing that came from this entire situation was that “the authoritative nature of this administration and corporate-dominated board of governors has been well publicized…. People are being killed and no matter one’s opinion about why, we must allow people to express their opinion on the matter.”