Over the past month, significant measures have been taken by the administration at York University to limit freedom of speech and to stifle democratic dissent. This has included an outright ban of the Students Against Israeli Apartheid group (SAIA), at least until 2014. This ban followed a wave of student organizing around the issue of Israeli imperialism and the occupation of Palestine.

The specific measures have been a response to a demonstration of several hundred students at the campus’ Vari Hall on 27th March. The protest was organized by SAIA and was supported by numerous campus groups, including the Socialist Fightback club at York University. The demonstration made a call for York University to divest from weapon-manufacturing corporations.

The challenge to Israeli imperialism had garnered significant student support over the past two school semesters. Thousands of students signed a petition campaign by SAIA to endorse their Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The York Federation of Students (YFS), the Graduate Students Association (GSA) and the union representing academic workers (CUPE local 3903) came out in support of these efforts.

The administration at York waited until the school year was finished to initiate its bans and intimidations. This seems to have been a manoeuvre specifically timed for when fewer students are on campus as to limit the ability of students to organize against the anti-democratic measures.

Double standards of the York administration

Letters were sent to many of the students who spoke at the demonstration in Vari Hall. These letters, signed by VP Students Janet Morrison, outlined a threat of disciplinary action against the recipients if they engaged in further “disrupting” of “academic activity”. Janet specifically noted the usage of a loudspeaker, for the purpose of addressing the large crowd, as the basis for these threats of disciplinary actions.

Vari Hall has been a traditional place of student gatherings, demonstrations, meetings, and social discussion. It has a long history of a place of protest, and should come as no surprise to anybody that protest activities tend to be organized at this location.

It is particularly hypocritical that these threats have been targeted to student protesters speaking out against war and imperialism. There have been numerous events at Vari Hall where megaphones and speakers have been employed, including the filming of the York version of the viral video “Harlem Shake”. The reality is that the administration has little problem with using this space if it is for entertainment or non-controversial purposes. It is a completely different manner if campus space is used for political or social justice reasons associated with left-wing organizations. The message of the administration is clear: you will not be persecuted as long as you don’t speak about issues that matter such as war, inequality, racism, or poverty.  If you do, you risk, at the very least, your academic future.

Trespass ban

Long-time Palestine solidarity activist and York University alumnus, Hammam Farah, was served with a trespass notice, banning him from university property until the end of April 2014. The letter was signed by Gary Brewer, the VP Finance and Administration at York University. It specifically mentioned Hammam’s participation at two demonstrations at York University as reasons for the ban.

This is a clear attempt to target one of the leading activists in the city, who has played a significant role helping York University students organize themselves to challenge the brutal violence of the Israeli state against the Palestinian population. We should be clear that speaking at a peaceful demonstration or assisting in leafleting activities with student clubs at the university are no basis for banning a student, alumnus, or community member from the university.

It is not uncommon for student groups, especially those focusing on social justice activism, to have considerable connections and relations with community, trade union, and other organizations. We need to have the full right to organize, and have the support and participation from alumni, faculty, community members, trade unionists, and others from outside the campus. If we allow this ban to stand, it will further encourage the administration to drive a wedge between student activists and non-campus activists and movements, significantly reducing the ability of all student groups to organize effectively, both on and off-campus.

It is also clear that the York administration has no issue with non-students playing a role in campus affairs. The Board of Governors at York University is almost entirely made up of non-students. Indeed, it is made up of representatives of the ruling class, political elite, and corporations. The real issue for the administration is not the presence of non-students, but the political activities of left-wing activists on campus.

It is the people on the Board of Governors who decide to hike our tuition fees every year, contributing to a class-privileged education system that is biased against working-class people and youth. How dare these unelected bodies of the ruling class on campus, who have removed the ability of tens of thousands of youth to attend post-secondary education, decry a peaceful protest as a “disruption to academic activity”?

An attack on the democratic rights of all students

The clear intent of these actions are to intimidate student activists and to limit the scope of their ability to organize. The effect, if this goes unchallenged, will be to send a chill through the spine of the student population. Students are rightly concerned that they could face expulsions or bans from the university if they attend a protest or help to organize such activity.

The reality is that if the administration were to get away with this measure, it will set a precedent for further disciplinary and anti-democratic actions in the future. This has to be stopped immediately. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) sent a letter to the York administration highlighting the fact that “noise” or “inconvenience” cannot be a basis to restrict the right the protest, and in fact, inconvenience is often a “core component” of peaceful protests.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the politics of SAIA or not, all student groups at York University must view these acts of the administration as attacks on the ability of students to organize and to express themselves. Today, the administration is targeting Palestinian solidarity groups; tomorrow, it will target tuition fees protesters, or Tamil-rights activists, or environmentalists who cause “disruptions” of academic activity

Fightback has some political differences with the Students Against Israeli Apartheid on the best way to advance Palestinian liberation and to fight Israeli imperialism. Nonetheless, we were proud to endorse that demonstration on 27th March. One of our activists (and co-author of this article) spoke at the rally at Vari Hall.

Our position is clear: we will speak again at demonstrations and we stand with SAIA. We will help organize demonstration in the future at York campus. We will not allow our democratic rights to be trampled on, and we will not allow the York admin’s disgusting behaviour to go unanswered or unchallenged.

It is imperative that students at York University make it very clear to the administration that we will not tolerate challenges to our democratic rights on campus. We must not let the administration take away our democratic rights as soon as we decide to use them. Democracy is inconvenient. Peaceful protest is inconvenient. They may “disrupt” academic activity, but we cannot let the admin curtail our right to peaceful protest and political action on campus.

Where next?

There are efforts underway for student groups and activists to organize around efforts to defend democratic rights at York University and to specifically challenge the targeting of the Palestine solidarity movement at York. We have discussed a campaign including petitions, leaflets, letters, and further actions to be taken in this regard.

The student unions must immediately take measures to defend the student organizations on campus. The York Federation of Students (YFS) in particular, along with the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) and the campus unions, must come out openly to challenge this anti-democratic agenda of the York administration. The student unions must protect its membership from such disciplinary action and threats.

The Socialist Fightback campus club demands that the YFS immediately come out publicly to condemn these repressive actions, and make it clear that it will not accept any restrictions on the democratic rights of student activists. Furthermore, the YFS should take action to ensure that SAIA can organize events, hold public tabling on campus, and have access to resources, despite any ongoing disciplinary actions, by itself booking spaces and funding the student group.

Furthermore, we must make immediate preparations to organize demonstrations to protect our democratic rights. The YFS must play a key role in organizing these mass actions. The rank-and-file students must be mobilized to defend democracy at York University.

Fightback supports the following demands as outlined by a petition that has begun circulating among students, campus workers, and faculty:

  1. Immediately reinstating Student Against Israeli Apartheid as a registered student club at York University;
  2. Immediately recalling its trespass order against alumnus and activist Hammam Farah;
  3. Making a firm commitment to upholding the universal values of freedom of speech and freedom of association, which include, but is not limited to amending or revoking University policies that place limits on said freedoms.