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Editorial: In light of censure, U of T must take action to support free speech — particularly speech about Palestine

Amid heartbreaking violence, The Varsity stands with the Palestinian community and urges U of T to support the free speech that raises awareness
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A pro-Palestine protest at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. SAMANTHA HAMILTON/THE VARSITY
A pro-Palestine protest at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. SAMANTHA HAMILTON/THE VARSITY

Resignations, cancellations, breakings of connections and partnerships

These are the impacts of the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) censure of U of T, following the university’s failed efforts to dissipate the months-long hiring scandal at the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP). 

The controversy began last September over allegations that Dr. Valentina Azarova was denied the position of director of the IHRP after a university donor suggested that she would be an unwelcome choice, due to writings of hers that were critical of Israel’s policies toward Palestine. U of T has denied these allegations since they first arose. 

The scandal bubbled beneath the surface for many months as U of T’s efforts to move on were moderately effective. Though individuals most concerned by it — such as law faculty professors and former IHRP directors — remained outspoken, the scandal had not fully caught the attention of the community at large. 

That is, until the CAUT announced a rare censure of the university, and its members listened. Suddenly, countless events that would have improved the quality of learning and community experience at the university were cancelled. Entire groups, such as Amnesty International and Citizen Lab, have cut ties with U of T over the censure. 

Support for the censure appears to grow by the day, as entire departments of the university — most recently, the School of the Environment — are expressing their support. 

So what happens now? 

The university has already attempted to put the matter at rest by commissioning an “independent” and “transparent” review, which has been criticized for being neither.

The Varsity has published many articles on the controversy as it has unfolded over the past year, and we’ve reported on the criticisms levied at the university by faculty and by the law community almost every step of the way. At any of these points, the university could have stopped its doomed attempts to sweep it under the rug and instead make substantive changes. For example, when met with criticism that the review process would be ineffective and lack transparency, U of T could have created a review body composed of a group of multiple diverse individuals, rather than tasking one former Supreme Court judge with the investigation.

As a result of the review, U of T has committed to creating guidelines around external attempts to interfere in hiring processes, and to review suggestions that academic freedom protections be implemented for certain managerial positions, such as law clinic directors. 

Still, little attention seems to be paid to the many U of T community members, especially faculty, who wholeheartedly support the censure and have been calling for action from the university for weeks. It is clear that this will not end without substantive efforts made by the university. 

The most prominent solution circulating — and the solution that the CAUT cites as a requirement to end the censure — is that U of T should re-offer Azarova the position. This idea has been offered for months, yet U of T has not acted upon it. U of T responded to this suggestion by saying that Azarova is welcome to apply for the position again following a review of the program as a whole. 

So far, the university has not taken any productive action following the censure — it has not even taken responsibility for the inadvertent effects of its inaction on the campus community. When the CAUT censure was announced, the university’s response was that it disagreed with the decision and that the CAUT had no jurisdiction over the case. Instead of taking the CAUT’s censure as a sign that something was wrong, the university merely attempted to pretend that everything was ‘business as usual.’

Following the censure, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity: “We remain committed to academic freedom for academics, including academic administrators, and to search processes that are confidential and insulated from external pressures whatever their source.” 

Despite its statements, we are echoing the calls for U of T to stop the scandal here by finally taking responsibility and accountability for any wrongdoing, and expressing an interest in true transparency so that the university may begin to repair its reputation. 

Supporters of the censure have also been trying to shift the narrative to refocus around Palestinian rights, rather than just academic freedom, as the escalation of the censure has also coincided with escalating violence between Israel and Palestine.

The central question of the scandal is really whether U of T will unequivocally support individuals’ right to speak freely on Israel and Palestine. Ensuring this right to free speech is also a moral imperative right now, as Palestinians have been disproportionately killed by Israel over the past two weeks. 

Violence erupted between the two sides after an Israeli court decided to forcibly remove Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah — a decision that the United Nations called a potential war crime — in addition to Israeli raids on al-Aqsa mosque that injured many Palestinians.

While there have been casualties on both sides, the effect on Palestinians has been far greater. In addition, there is an extreme imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine that makes it impossible to accept that “both sides” are suffering equally. Israel has an incredibly well-funded military, and the Palestinian people lack the same rights as Israeli individuals.

These developments also did not appear out of nowhere. Israel has been occupying Palestine and displacing Palestinians for decades, which has been widely criticized by the international community

During the most recent fighting, Israel also targeted the offices of the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera in Palestine, claiming it was an attack on Hamas, rather than the media. As journalists, these developments are extremely concerning. 

The Varsity stands in solidarity with Palestine and Palestinian community members at U of T. Over the next few weeks — and throughout this volume of The Varsity — we hope to increase our reporting on what the violence in Palestine means for our community members, as well as to make room for community members to write their own stories and experiences.

This is in line with an open letter that The Varsity has signed, along with hundreds of other prominent journalists and news organizations in Canada, demanding better and more nuanced coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict from Canadian newsrooms. 

In addition, The Varsity has donated $200 to Save the Children, a non-governmental organization working in Palestine, as 58 children in Gaza and two in Israel have been killed. We do so out of a sincere belief that anyone — regardless of their politics, background or religion — can sympathize with the tragedy of violence that takes the lives of innocents. 

Yet, despite the stance expressed here, The Varsity remains committed to a Comment section that is open to all well-meaning U of T community members. Students may write for the section from any position that is fair, well-reasoned, and based on evidence.

In light of recent events, at minimum, the university needs to affirm its commitment to protecting speech about Palestine, as that is the fundamental question of the IHRP hiring scandal: will U of T protect speech that is critical of Israel, even when pushed back upon? 

The Varsity calls on U of T to finally listen to what its community has been saying, to take action and accountability, and to affirm a commitment to free speech for all community members — but particularly for the Palestinian people who have felt silenced for so long. 

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]