|Year||University Policies||University Practices||Student Union Policies||Student Union Practices|
York University’s Academic Plan 2010-2015 includes the University’s “unswerving commitment to academic freedom and collegial self-governance.” The institution also values “a commitment to critical and free inquiry which requires the willingness to challenge but also to tolerate and respect ideas that may differ from our own.”
York’s Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities lists the rights possessed by students on campus, including “[t]he right to freedom of inquiry, expression and assembly on campus.” Additionally, students have the right “to engage and participate in dialogue and to examine diverse views and ideas.”
The Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities states in its preamble that the right to freedom of expression will be balanced by other listed rights:
The identified rights and responsibilities listed are interdependent and interconnected. For example, “The right to freedom of inquiry, expression and assembly on campus” and “The right to engage and participate in dialogue and to examine diverse views and ideas” are not separate from “The right to respect for one’s person and property” and “The responsibility to behave in a way that does not harm or threaten to harm another person’s physical or mental wellbeing.” Where there is a tension between rights and responsibilities that are linked, those involved must recognize the need to achieve an appropriate balance.
In the “Responsibilities” section of the Code, students are expected, among other things, to adhere to “the responsibility to uphold an atmosphere of civility, honesty, equity and respect for others which values the inherent diversity in our community.”
York University’s Policy Concerning Racism states:
York’s Student Community & Leadership Development website includes an anti-disruption clause to protect student groups tabling or promoting their cause:
The Guideline on Acceptance and Display of Commemorative Art Work outlines the procedures by which the institution may accept pieces of art that commemorate a historical figure or event. In determining whether to accept a piece of work, the policy states that administrators must consider “[w]hether the work or the individual or event it commemorates is so controversial as to engender activity which would compromise the work, the facilities or the activities of the University.”
York’s Procedures and Regulations regarding Temporary Use of University Space applies to student groups hosting an event on campus “with a high profile or controversial external speaker or group.” Section 2.2.2 of the Procedures and Regulations states:
The organizer of an Event involving a High Profile or Controversial External Speaker shall notify the Office of Temporary Use of University Space (TUUS) as early as possible. TUUS will arrange a consultation meeting with the organizer, Security Services and any other relevant service areas.
Section 5.2 of the Procedures and Regulations gives the University administration discretion to decide whether an event mandates a security presence:
The University may assess the potential risks associated with the temporary use of its space by an Eligible User on the basis of safety of participants and other individuals on campus, protection of property, and continuity of academic programs, services, scheduled activities/events, and other University operations. The University may stipulate that certain physical, security, and/or other requirements, including insurance, be put in place in order for the event to proceed and may also require a security and/or damage deposit.
Sections 5.2 and 5.3 of the Procedures and Regulations discriminate against student groups advocating messages considered controversial or offensive by some members of the campus community. Section 5.3 burdens student groups (the Eligible User) hosting an event with the cost of providing security:
The Eligible User is responsible for the costs associated with these requirements as well as municipal fines for false alarms or misuse of fire equipment arising out of its use of the premises.
Section 7.1.4 of the Postering Guideline prohibits placing posters considered to “disseminate hate propaganda, discriminates or appears to differentiate on the basis of any of the grounds of the Ontario Human Rights Code or York’s human rights policies.”
York University’s Centre for Human Rights exists to “assist individuals and groups to address and resolve allegations of discrimination and harassment as defined by the Code and University policy.” The Centre does not appear to be empowered to censor speech, nor to enforce penalties and punishments on violators. Rather, the Centre focuses on educational workshops and promotes dialogue and appeasement between complainants and defendants.
York’s Hate Propoganda Guidelines define hate propaganda as follows:
Hate propaganda is the public promotion or incitement of hatred against an identifiable group. Hate propaganda targets persons and/or property, based on such factors as colour, race, religion, or ethnic origin (Section 318 (4) of the Criminal Code of Canada). York University identifies sex, sexual orientation and gender identification as additional factors.
The University Senate also maintains a policy on Gender Free Language which states:
It is the policy of Senate to refrain from the use of gendered language in its official documents. Gendered language shall be removed from documents as they are updated from time to time.
In 2012, the Student Centre at York University, which is administered by the York Federation of Students (YFS), held a mural contest to determine placements at the Centre’s mural. According to the contest guidelines, the winning murals would hang in the Centre until 2015.
In January of 2016, the president of a Jewish students’ group on campus, Hillel at York, sent an open letter to Student Centre Executive Director Scott Jarvis, requesting that one of the winning murals be removed:
Every day, when I climb up the stairs of the Student Centre to get to the Hillel lounge, I am greeted with an acrylic painting of a Palestinian man (judging by his scarf) holding rocks behind his back as he watches a bulldozer uprooting a tree. The artist, York U alum Ahmad Al Abid, describes that the viewers of the mural are “left to decide whether to defend against the tree knowing its danger, or to stand aside as you watch the tree being uprooted.”
While the intentions of the artist are ambiguous at best, the way in which this piece is perceived by many Jewish students like myself is anything but vague. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stone-throwing means one thing: Violence.
In its Value Statements, the York University Student Centre commits to “providing a safe space on campus for all students.” I therefore ask that you follow the rules of the competition, and adhere to the mission and values set by your organization and remove this mural from the Student Centre.
In response to the open letter, York University president Mamdouh Shoukri visited Hillel at one of their meetings to discuss their concerns. In an April 2016 interview with CJnews, Dr. Shoukri explained what actions the University took following the meeting with Hillel:
I believe it is the right of all students, professors, and in fact all Canadians, to express their opinions and to join together to advocate for changes they believe will improve the university and society in general. I believe, just as strongly, that an intelligent discussion requires that both sides listen, which is why we are reviewing our policies to promote that goal.
In terms of the mural, it is clear that the subject of the artwork is offensive to some individuals and groups, particularly some Jewish members of our community. I understand and respect these concerns. York University has requested and confirmed that the executive of the Student Centre, which is a separate and distinct legal entity from the university, will establish procedures for hearing and resolving complaints from students about their shared space.
The considered advice we received assures me that displaying the painting in question is not illegal, and as such I accept the right of the artist to share his political position using it. However, I would like to see Student Centre consider replacing it, not because it is illegal, but rather as a way to create an opportunity to explore a better framework for dialogue.
On May 3, 2013, York University administrators revoked the club status of the student group “Students Against Israeli Apartheid” (SAIA) and banned it from applying for official club status until January, 2014. The ban was the result of a rally organized by SAIA on March 27, 2013, which the university deemed to have disrupted academic activities near Vari Hall rotunda due to the noise and extent of the demonstration. York also sent warning letters to the Black Students’ Alliance and the Middle Eastern Students’ Alliance because of their involvement in the event.
Joanne Rider, director of media relations at York, told student media at the time that the decision was made after SAIA was found to have repeatedly disrupted campus activities, despite being given warnings from the University to cease disruptive protests. “We followed due process, including warning SAIA a number of times before we made the decision to sanction them.”
In a post on SAIA’s Facebook page, the group writes that the university’s decision to revoke their status is an “unprecedented attack on academic freedom and freedom of speech on the York University campus.”
SAIA organized a protest on November 5, 2013, in Vari Hall, which was intended to be a counter-rally to the “York is U” spirit rally which was being held at the same location that day. SAIA wanted to raise awareness about York University’s discrimination in allowing space bookings at Vari Hall for only some student events. The spirit rally was cancelled for unknown reasons, but the SAIA protest went ahead with protesters throwing pamphlets into the main lobby and chanting loudly enough to warrant campus security to investigate. Security informed one member of the SAIA protest that he should leave campus after the individual disclosed he was no longer a York student.
After the one-year ban, in January of 2014, SAIA applied for club status and was ratified.
In February 2010, the Jewish Students Federation at York invited Middle East affairs commentator Daniel Pipes to give a lecture on campus. During their application for venue space, the University mandated that the group cover the costs of security at the event given their view that Pipes would incite anger and controversy on campus. The student group was forced to cancel the event because they couldn’t cover the security costs.
In June 2009, faculty members at York University organized a conference, “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace”, which was held in various venues at the University. The organizers of the conference accused University administration of violating the principle of academic freedom by putting “undue pressure” on them to change the content of the conference. Specifically, organizers accused then Dean of the Osgoode Hall Law School and the Associate Vice President of Research and Innovation of attempting to cancel controversial topics for discussion and un-inviting some of the academics slated to speak.
Through the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act, records of email exchanges that occurred during the months leading up to the conference were obtained and showed that numerous members of the University leadership had discussed methods of avoiding negative press about the University. One article on the documents states:
Those e-mails, obtained by The Globe and Mail, discuss how the University might avoid "a disaster," by paying for the event to be moved off campus, putting forward speakers to balance the program and planting participants in the audience to moderate debate. The aim was to avoid the type of controversy experienced at Montreal's Concordia University, where clashes between Muslim and Jewish students in 2002 badly damaged its reputation and led to the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In response to allegations of suppressing academic freedom, York University asked Supreme Court Justice Iacobucci to review the issue. The Review concluded that there was no need for further investigation of the conference and that the University did not act in opposition to academic freedom. The report has been criticized by many faculty members at York, including the Osgoode Hall Faculty Association.
On February 11, 2009, approximately 100 pro-Palestinian students reportedly initiated a near-riot against a group of Jewish students during a news conference where speakers called for the impeachment of the York Federation of Students (YFS) executive. According to witnesses, the demonstrators, which reportedly consisted of members of the YFS and Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), shouted “Zionism equals racism!” and “Racists off campus!” One witness stated, “[YFS supporters] started banging the door and windows, intimidating Jewish students and screaming antisemitic slurs.”
The students barricaded themselves inside the Hillel offices, where protesters reportedly banged on the windows and attempted to force their way in. Eventually police were called to escort Jewish students through the protesters.
In May 2009, York adjudicator Janet Mosher, who was an associate dean at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, ruled that two York students, Krisna Saravanamuttu and Jesse Zimmerman, had violated the Student Code of Conduct due to their behaviour at the protest, which she described as “exclusionary and offensive” and which promoted an atmosphere of “hostility, incivility and intimidation.” Mosher noted that both students participated in the protest, which pursued a group of Jewish students to Hillel’s lounge in York’s Student Centre, and swarmed outside shouting taunts. On a video of the incident, Saravanamuttu was shown clapping and apparently leading a chant of “Whose campus? Our campus!” as well as participating in a chant of “Racists off campus." Saravanamuttu was fined $150 and both he and Zimmerman were given an official reprimand and human rights training.
York University stood up for the free speech rights of students after the York Federation of Students (YFS), York’s student union, cancelled a scheduled debate on abortion in February 2008. The event, which was hosted and moderated by two student societies at York, was cancelled by YFS executives because they felt abortion was not a topic for debate. York University intervened by offering the student group an alternative space at Curtis Lecture Hall on York’s Keele campus. Commenting on the University’s decision, spokesperson Richard Fisher stated, “Any debate that is legal and protected by free speech needs to occur. If it can’t happen at a…liberal arts University, where can it happen?”
When YFS Executives voted in 2008 to restrict union resources to pro-life clubs on campus, York University pledged to provide pro-life clubs with replacement resources in compensation for the YFS decision.
In January 2003, Daniel Pipes was invited by York’s Centre for International and Security Studies to give a lecture. Facing complaints from the Middle East Students Association and the York University Faculty Association, the Centre cancelled his talk. Then-president Lorna Marsden re-invited Pipes after she was informed of the controversy, and his lecture was held at a different venue on campus.
Article 2, Section 4 of the York Federation of Students (YFS) Constitution enables the Union to take stances on political/policy issues on behalf of its members:
To bring together undergraduate students from across the campus to discuss and take common, democratic positions on questions affecting students;
Section 5.6.e of the YFS Bylaws outlines the duties of the Vice President, Equity (an elected YFS executive position). One of the duties listed appears to empower the officer to take stances for or against issues related to “discrimination” and “equity”.
Section 10.3 of the Bylaws outlines the responsibilities of the Chief Returning Officer (CRO) who is responsible for the overall administration of YFS elections. Subsection “h” of the bylaw empowers the CRO to determine which campaign materials (posters, communiqués, pamphlets, etc.) are acceptable. Sections “d” through “h” of Section 10.13 (Campaigning) give some indication of the criteria established for approval of campaign materials:
The CRO is also empowered to restrict the quantity of posters one candidate can post during an election. Sections 10.13.g and 10.13.h of the Bylaws restrict the quantity of messages a candidate can communicate to voters during the election.
Section 10.13.k restricts the location of campaign messages on campus:
Subection I is particularly restrictive since it empowers the CRO to determine any number of Union-operated spaces out of bounds for campaigning.
Section 10.13.c of the Bylaws gives significant discretion to the CRO and YFS officials to censor speech during elections due to vague language (e.g. “generally accepted community standards”) contained in the text:
Furthermore, Section 10.15 gives the CRO power to set rules and enforce penalties not covered in the Bylaws:
The CRO reserves the right to make rulings on issues and events not otherwise covered in this code, or to add in such rulings to supplement existing sections.
Section 10.15 further outlines the penalties that the CRO may employ against violators of its rulings, which includes ruling an election or candidate void in the election process.
By-law 11 governs the procedures related to referenda during YFS elections. Section 11.4 of the By-law severely restricts the ability of students to participate in a referendum campaign as they themselves see fit by allowing only one “advocating committee” to officially represent and campaign on behalf of each of the “yes” and “no” options:
No one other than a registered advocating committee shall advertise in any medium, or post or distribute any material, for the purpose of supporting or opposing a referendum question.
Bylaws 10 and 11 limit free speech through the governing of campaign finance and resource access. Spending limits are set by the CRO and the Referendum Committee for candidates and referendum advocating committees, and candidates/advocates are not allowed to raise funds on their own above and beyond the expenditure limits.
YFS’ Club Ratification Policy states that “[the] objectives and activities of groups seeking recognition should be seen as attempting to contribute to, but not limited to, educational, recreational, social or cultural values of the York University Community.” It further states:
1.6 The YFS does not support, promote or fund activities that are discriminatory as defined by the Ontario Human Rights Code and YFS policies.
1.7 The YFS will not ratify any groups that practice any form of coercive (persistent mental, social and emotional pressure to join the group) techniques of their membership or potential membership, nor any student groups who are found to be associated with an outside body who practices coercion, or knowingly violates any of the procedures listed above.
1.8 The YFS will not ratify any clubs who threaten, are rude or antagonizing to YFS Staff, Board or Executive Members.
The ratification process for clubs is explained on the YFS website, www.yfs.ca. Clubs seeking ratification must adhere to the above-mentioned conditions, but also must outline in detail their planned events and activities for the coming year. YFS justifies the requirement by saying that it is intended to give a better idea of “how active” clubs will be. That said, such a requirement means that clubs may be denied ratification based on the composition and content of events they are planning to hold even before they’ve applied for space.
Section 1.5 of the Club Funding Operations Policy states, “The YFS does not support, promote, or fund activities that are discriminatory as defined by the Ontario Human Rights Code and YFS policies.”
In June 2008, the York Federation of Students (YFS) passed a motion to ban pro-life groups from access to YFS resources, recognition and campus space. YFS delegates first introduced the motion at an annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students in January 2008. The motion (which passed successfully) requires all member unions to ban pro-life clubs from access to union recognition and resources.
Article 2, Section 4 of the York Federation of Students (YFS) Constitution enables the Union to take stances on political/policy issues on behalf of its members (see Section 3). This policy has been used to justify taking political stances on national and international issues not directly related to students’ interests. For example, YFS co-sponsored an event in opposition to the 2010 G20 meetings which occurred in Toronto. An article in “Maclean’s on campus” describes the incidences as follows:
York student Gregory Kay was also irked by his student union’s support for G20 protests. The YFS and the student union at the University of Toronto co-sponsored “Toronto vs. the G20: a teach-in.” Class included Black Bloc tactics, which ended up seeing storefronts and public property smashed during the summit in downtown Toronto. “That’s something most students don’t believe in at all,” says Kay, who is the business representative for the YFS board of directors. “Most students aren’t anti-capitalist. They’re not interested in civil disobedience.”
YFS endorsed striking faculty members at York during contract disputes that occurred in 2008. YFS closed its offices in solidarity with the protestors, denying access to YFS services in doing so. Additional controversy erupted when it was discovered that YFS executives used the opportunity to work for the CFS, the national student umbrella group which YFS belongs, in Ottawa. The decision prompted a signature campaign to impeach the YFS Executive which collected more than 5,000 signatures.
In January of 2016, in response to demands from Hillel at York, a Jewish students’ group, and requests from York University’s president, to remove a controversial banner from York’s Student Centre (administered by the YFS), YFS executives defended the legitimacy of posting such a banner at the Student Centre:
It is the view of the York University Student Centre and the York Federation of Students that this artwork is not hateful and is the artist’s depiction of the resistance to the occupation of Palestinian land
On February 29, 2008, the York University Society for Bio-Ethical Awareness planned to host an event titled “Abortion: A woman’s right or moral wrong?” The event was to feature Jose Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Awareness debating Michael Payton, member of the student group FreeSAY. It was to take place in the Student Centre, a hall operated by the YFS. The event was cancelled by YFS merely hours before it was set to begin. YFS Executives justified the action, saying “abortion is not an issue to debate” and that the debate was comparable to “debating whether a man can beat his wife.” The event was rescheduled to take place at Curtis Lecture Hall on York’s Keele campus, a space operated by York University, rather than the YFS. The debate took place successfully on March 18.
In February 2008, the York Federation of Students led a delegation of students to McMaster University to protest the University’s decision to censor a controversial promotional poster for the campus’s annual Israeli Apartheid Week event. The decision to send students to protest at McMaster indicates apparent inconsistencies in YFS’ position on free speech. As one article wrote:
The YFS joined other Toronto students unions in condemning McMaster University and the McMaster Students Union for censoring a poster featuring the controversial phrase “Israeli Apartheid” and a graphic, violent image. At the rally, the Toronto unions accused the University and students union of shutting down free speech at McMaster. They called on McMaster University and students union to allow for absolute free political speech on the campus.
[YFS VP for Equity] Massa doesn’t see the connection between the two incidents. She said that the censorship at McMaster was about a political issue while the York [abortion] debate would have amounted to “hate speech.”