Censorsh-t at Concordia prompts debate
For a little over a year, the phrase "Sept. 11" has been inconspicuously taking on a life of its own. When uttered, it demands little explanation around the globe.
These days a new September phrase is clamouring for a foothold among Canadians plugged in to the university-campus-activist scene.
"September 9" is a dark memory for those who were at Condordia University's downtown Montreal campus on that fateful day last month who now claim they have been sentenced to silence as a result of a vehement protest gone awry.
On Sept. 9, 2002, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister was scheduled to speak at Concordia, a university widely known for its outspoken student body.
To show their dislike of Netanyahu, an activist group called Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights organized a protest.
Organizers maintain they had no intention of shutting down the speech they were merely standing up for their rights, they say; they were confronting "head-on" a man who has allegedly committed unforgivable crimes against their people.
However, by the end of the day, violence had ensued, Netanyahu had cancelled his speech citing safety concerns and five people (two of them students) had been arrested by police. The events of the day garnered considerable media attention across the country in the days that followed.
The university's response has amounted to banning all public display and discussion of Israeli-Palestinian issues, an act which has spawned a larger debate over censorship, and poses a threat to the future of the student voice.
"The university's core activities . . . are not political activism. While this is of high importance to a minority of students, most of the 29,000 students enrolled at Concordia are uninvolved," reads a statement by Frederick Lowy, Concordia's Rector, announcing the moratorium on the school's Web site.
"The intent is to free us at this tense time from inflammatory activities that have a negative impact on this university," the statement continues.
For those the university intended to silence, the action amounts to pure censorship.
The Canadian Association for Freedom of Expression, a national advocacy group, has condemned the moratorium, calling it "a gutless response."
"Of all places where things ought to be debated it is the university. There has been a real drift in the Canadian establishment away from freedom of expression," said Paul Fromm, director of CAFE. "When we're talking about matters of peace and war these are things that ought to be debated."
Other critics of the three-month policy are suggesting the university's action seems a bizarre choice for an environment said to be protected by the wide-reaching expanse of academic freedom, which applies to both students and faculty members.
Tim Blackmore, a professor in the faculty of information and media studies at Western, is known for his anti-militaristic, often anti-establishment, views on the effects of war.
"If we can't have open debate at a university, where can we do it? It's not going to happen in the corridors of corporate power," Blackmore said.
The moratorium, he said, is not likely to be the solution to solving Concordia's problems he warns it could create even more.
"Ultimately, 'cooling things off' probably isn't going to make them go away. It may make them more uncontrollable," he said. "Ideally, we should look for a series of debates between sides, but that is a problem when tensions are so high.
"As far as the Palestinians are concerned, [hosting Netanyahu] is like having the white knights of the KKK in to talk. It's a nightmare. This man is a war criminal," Blackmore said.
Chadi Marouf, director of SPHR, the group responsible for organizing the protest, said he feels his group has been unjustly censored and fears it could lead to stifled debate in the future.
"The university was under a lot of pressure from pro-Israeli advocates. They responded by slapping a moratorium on freedom of expression. If this situation goes on, it will set a precedent for other universities to follow," Marouf said.
Jonathan Vance, a Canada Research Chair in the department of history at Western and an expert in the effects of war on society, said Concordia has a long history of violent protests dating back to anti-Vietnam and anti-racism debates of the late '60s.
That legacy, he said, in part, left [the university] with no other alternative following the events of Sept. 9.
"When freedom of speech is taken to the point where people feel they aren't safe, that's where things need to be brought under control. There is a tendency to assume that freedom of speech and academic freedom is limitless, but we have to keep in mind that these ideas have become inflammatory," Vance said.
"When expression influences passion to the degree that people don't feel safe, it puts the university between a rock and a hard place. It is a kind of censorship, but there seemed to be no other way to ensure that the violence didn't continue," he said.
David Robinson, associate-executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said Concordia's moratorium is not the first case in which speech has been limited on a university campus.
"There have been a lot of professors, in both Canada and the United States, that, since Sept. 11, have been threatened with censure. If we start shutting down speech, it doesn't make the views go away," he said.