Academic Freedom Under Attack At York University

May 13, 2013

In response to increased pressure from the York chapter of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), the York University administration has decided to take extraordinary measures to ban a community member and alumnus from campus, to threaten student leaders with punishment, and furthermore, to revoke the official student club status of SAIA until January 2014. These actions represent an unprecedented attack on academic freedom and freedom of speech on the York University campus. The York University administration has decided to deny students this opportunity and has instead taken the initiative to promote a neoliberal agenda where the University becomes more like a factory, pumping out unthinking and unquestioning student-robots who keep their mouths shut. The administration is no longer abiding by the University's own mission statement of being a University that "cultivate(s) the critical intellect", that "explore(s) global concerns", and most importantly, that is a "community of faculty, students, staff, alumni, and volunteers committed to academic freedom, social justice, accessible education, and collegial self-governance".

This past year, SAIA has been especially successful in passing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motions at both the York University Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) and the York Federation of Students (YFS), as well as gaining over 5,000 signatures of undergraduate students on a petition calling for BDS. CUPE 3903, the union for Teaching Assistants and Contract Faculty, passed a BDS motion in 2009. They have recently renewed their commitment to this motion and have offered their solidarity to both the GSA and the YFS. In response to the mass mobilization efforts of SAIA, including silent vigils, written statements, and public protests, all of these student and worker organizations have made a commitment to push the York University administration to divest from companies that profit from human rights violations as well as violations of International Law.

Currently, the York University Pension Fund and Endowment Fund are invested in companies that sell weapons and other military technologies to the Israeli military. These companies are complicit in the murder of innocent Palestinian families in Gaza as recently as November 2012. SAIA has been working extremely hard all year to raise awareness on campus of these unethical investments by tabling, meeting with various administrators, including VP Students Janet Morrison, and passing BDS motions at various levels of student government. In response to these initiatives, SAIA has received continuous backlash from the York University administration including several disciplinary meetings, (now realized) threats to ban a York alumnus and SAIA activist from campus under trespass laws, official sanctions, and the rescinding of SAIA’s student club status.

In January of 2013, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) intervened in this ongoing matter by releasing a public statement on its website and by sending a copy of this statement as a letter to VP Morrison and Director of Security Rob Kilfoyle, which stated that

York University is a well-respected institution of higher learning and,as such, is well placed to encourage critical thinking and questioning,even when this takes a form that may result in some level of inconvenience or interference with the everyday workings of the University. Events that are simply noisy, disruptive or cause some inconvenience are often still peaceful and, in many cases, such disruption is a core component of the nature of the protest or the message being conveyed.”

It is especially problematic that after reading and responding to this statement from the leading Canadian civil liberties organization, VP Finance Gary Brewer moved forward with an illegal and unethical decision to serve alumnus activist Hammam Farah with a trespass notice simply for his involvement in SAIA events on campus. Subsequently, VP Students Janet Morrison decided to revoke the student club status of SAIA and send letters threatening to students. These moves represent a flagrant violation of the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech that all Canadian institutions must respect.

However, let us be clear in stating that the draconian and punitive measures of the York University administration will not stop students from organizing and participating in actions designed to educate the York University community about the unethical investments of University funds. We refuse to be silenced and we refuse to be complicit. We will continue to speak out, to protest, and to push for the divestment of University funds from corporations that manufacture weapons. We will not allow the decisions of the administration, in blatant conflict with the principles and values entrenched in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to quell our movement for a more ethical and responsible investment policy. We call on the University administration to recall its trespass order against alumnus and activist Hammam Farah, to reinstate SAIA as an official student club, and to make a firm commitment to upholding the universal values of freedom of speech and freedom of association.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars in University funds going directly towards weapons manufacturing companies each year, the time to remain silent has passed. Silence is complicity. Silence is the acceptance of the status quo. Silence is the rejection of the principles of Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech.  We will not be silent. We will speak out, and we will resist.

Yours Truly,