When York University adopted its Freedom of Expression policy in 2018, it trumpeted its commitment to freedom of expression as an institutional commitment of the highest priority. It emphasized the University’s “unwavering commitment to fundamental values of free expression, free inquiry, and respect for genuine diversity of thought and opinion.” Front and centre were its concern to preserve the “free and open exchange of ideas and opinion for and by all members of the community through respectful debate, including robust rights to protest and express dissent…”
This ostensible commitment to free expression has continued to be expressed to the present. In its 2023 annual report to the province’s Higher Education Quality Council, York University repeated its guarantee to “all community members and invited guests to express their views within the law and without fear of intimidation or harassment.”
Events of the past several weeks have given lie to these claims, revealing York’s professed commitment to free expression as little more than window dressing.
The reality of the University’s view of expressive freedom became clear after the York Federation of Students (YFS), the York University Graduate Students Association (YUGSA) and the Glendon College Student Union (GCSU) posted a joint Statement of Solidarity with Palestine not long after the Hamas attacks on Israel.
The student associations’ statement gives unwavering support to the “Palestinian people’s fight for self-determination and liberation” and asserts that “this struggle confronts the persistent oppression, displacement, and human rights abuses inflicted upon the Palestinian population.” Finally, it notes that student unions have “a responsibility to spread awareness and support the liberation of Palestine and all struggles for Indigenous sovereignty.”
Protest from some student organizations and University administrative reprisals followed. On October 13th, York’s administration condemned the statement as inflammatory and called upon the unions to “immediately clarify that they firmly reject any acts of violence or discrimination against Jewish students or other members of the community, and to reaffirm their commitment to non-violence and the safety of all their members.”
The following day, there was a further official condemnation of the “inflammatory and abhorrent statement” and a reminder that “Freedom of expression has limits and comes with responsibilities.” Four days later, on October 18, York’s President entered the fray: “On Friday, and again over the weekend, the University reached out to the student union’s leadership to call on them to reaffirm their commitment to non-violence, anti-discrimination, and to the safety of all students; to withdraw the statement; and to acknowledge and commit to repairing the hurt caused to their student members and others.”
More administrative pressure came on October 20 when the University threatened the student unions with possible charges under the Regulation regarding Student Organization including “failure to operate in an Open, Accessible, Democratic, Non-Discriminatory manner and failure to act in accordance with principles of diversity, equity and inclusion for all members.”. To avoid punishment, the unions were required to:
- Retract the Statement and remove it from public platforms.
- Issue a public statement to confirm that they do not endorse or support antisemitism or any form of discrimination or violence, that they are committed to the safety of the entire membership, that they acknowledge the harm done to members and the community by the Statement, and that they are committed to take steps to repair these harms; and
- All members of the student union executives must resign, and the unions immediately hold a by-election for the vacant positions in accordance with the Regulation.
- They must demonstrate that no breach occurred.
Students were given a deadline for their response.
To anyone who cares about freedom of expression and its centrality to the mission of post-secondary education, these heavy-handed measures are alarming.
The demand for resignations of student leaders is anti-democratic. The leadership of the student unions is an elected leadership and as such is entitled to take positions and adopt motions. As two people who have spent their lives in faculty unions, we know that it is not unusual for elected leaders to adopt unpopular positions and that members can certainly protest such measures. Constitutions and by-laws set out avenues for remedy. The student leadership is accountable to members on a regular basis.
The University administration deploying the student regulation means that the leadership is accused of not being open, democratic, accessible and non-discriminatory. It is hard to see how posting a statement can justify these accusations.
Student unions are an essential part of university governance. Not only do they advocate for student interests, but they play an essential role in ensuring administrative accountability. They are political bodies and adopt political positions. They are not creatures of the Administration, although they fall under various regulations. To override their normal democratic processes undermines their independence and diminishes the culture of political activism essential to a democracy. It leaves a Damocles sword over the heads of all later student leaders, suggesting that they only lead at the pleasure of the University administration.
Universities are unique environments, with a unique mission to expand knowledge in the public interest. Freedom of expression is of foundational importance in achieving this purpose. Curtailing legal, if controversial, expression or demanding retractions as York has done in the supposed interest of creating “a welcoming environment” free of “reckless rhetoric and divisive words and deeds”, threatens to promote an atmosphere where self-censorship reigns. Freedom of expression can only thrive where dissent and controversy are tolerated, indeed invited. Where freedom of expression is diminished, academic freedom, the right accorded to academic staff as teachers and scholars, is also threatened. Repressive administrative intervention to squelch controversy creates a chill on all speech, whether it be in the classroom or in other campus fora where Charter-based civil liberties of both faculty and students should prevail.
In our view, it should be in only the rarest of circumstances that a university takes an official position on a matter of extramural controversy. Doing so threatens to undercut the right of students and faculty to take their own considered positions and to confront their differences and agreements through discussion and debate. University administrations are rightly concerned to provide safe environments for learning and where debate and controversy can occur. A concern for safety, however, does not entail the creation of an environment where everyone is “safe” and does not experience discomfort, or one where outrage is prohibited. The emotional affect driving a position is a central component of its content. Threats of physical violence and the deployment of the hecklers’ veto are unacceptable. But the requirement that the university community be protected from hearing anything that some members find abhorrent or anxiety producing is entirely contradictory to the principles of a free society and to the expressive freedom necessary for universities to fulfill their missions of advancing knowledge and educating students. How can the York administration impose such a limit without violating the University’s own policy commitment to the “fundamental values of free expression, free inquiry, and respect for genuine diversity of thought and opinion”? It cannot.
In its censorious overreach, York is distinguished from other post-secondary institutions dealing with similar statements. At Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), students at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law posted a statement of solidarity with Palestinian resistance (since taken down). There TMU acknowledged the pain and distress caused by the letter and made clear that the University and the Law School did not “issue, endorse or condone the statement”. To date there are no punitive measures, although very recently TMU has indicated it will launch an independent inquiry. At the University of Toronto Mississauga, no punitive measures have been taken in response to a student statement in solidarity with Palestinians. In these cases, external publics have called for reprisals, but university administrations have taken the more prudent step of resisting these calls to punish because of the greater danger posed to expressive freedoms. This has not prevented any of the institutions from stating clearly their outrage and offense at the various statements.
Across this country and North America, pro-Palestinian voices are being suppressed, harassed, and attacked. York should not join in. York does not have to condone the student solidarity statement; and like other institutions, it can vigorously state its opposition. But the University administration makes a mistake when it punishes, essentially prohibits, legal expression that it finds offensive or unwanted. Far better to register that this conflict is tragically painful, divisive, and anchored in the horrific historical traumas endured by two communities. It is a conflict that generates terror, outrage, and moral condemnation from every direction. In these circumstances, it is far better for university administrators to adopt the counsel that the University of Manitoba administration offered to the university community:
“As in any conflict, members of our community will hold strong views and we urge our community to engage in respectful dialogue.
We continue to monitor the situation and will provide updates and resources as needed. We ask everyone to take care of yourselves and one another during these trying times.”