Special Committee on Un-Canadian Activities?

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<b>Sounds far out, but so does a university that bans public discussion &#151; even info tables &#151; on a matter of worldwide concern. What are they teaching the kids these days anyway? <b>

With tear gas still in the air following the September 9 demonstration at Concordia University that forced the cancellation of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech on campus, University rector Frederick Lowy retreated from his position that it would be “business as usual” at the school that day.

Unionized workers were given the choice of leaving work early and, as soon as policeopened the doors that were blocking students and staff from fleeing the barely breathable air of the Hall Building’s closed ventilation system, many took advantage of the rector’s offer. Campus union leaders had urged the rector, who heads the university, to clear the Hall Building the day of the talk to protect the safety of their members.

Just hours after the-event-that-did-not-happen, Lowy announced the university’s indefinite and unprecedented ban on any further public discussion of the Middle East conflict on Concordia’s campus, including public speeches, rallies, information tables and art exhibitions. Class discussions are allowed “when such discussions bear upon the subject matter of the course.”

The ban, effectively covering the entire Middle East and therefore Iraq, could hamper activists wishing to mobilize on campus around the pending U.S. attack on the country. The Concordia Student Union and the Part-time Faculty Association are fighting the ban.

In the week that followed the protest, both the part-time faculty union and the student government found themselves meeting with the rector once again, to convince him that the ban was a terrible mistake. After all, banning free speech discourages productive dialogue — and productive dialogue is exactly what’s needed to diffuse tensions.

Despite vocal disapproval from the university community, the Board of Governors decided at a September 18 meeting not only to maintain the ban but also to expel students deemed to have committed violent acts during the protest. Decisions about who constitutes a “violent protester” will be made by the Executive Committee. According to the policy, decisions will be based upon the reliability of the information available.

Identified students will not have a chance to defend themselves in front of a Hearing Panel as guaranteed under the University’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities. Reasons provided by the administration for going against school policy are vague.

There is a glaring contradiction at Concordia that has become a gaping cavity since the September 9 protest. No, not between the conflicting viewpoints on Israel and Palestine so evident in the student body. Rather, it’s the extremely disconcerting contradiction between what the university says it stands for — and, arguably, what universities are meant to stand for — and this university’s actions.

Take Rector Lowy’s September 9 announcement in which he both proclaimed the indefinite ban on all things Middle East (or, rather, public discussions thereof) and assured his audience that Concordia “has no intention of abandoning its tradition of free expression.” Logic gap, right?

In his defence, it’s difficult to abandon something whose existence was tenuous in the first place. While Concordia has consistently paid lip service to the principles of free speech and open public debate, actions speak louder than words.

About this time last year, Lowy had just expelled two elected student representatives, Tom Keefer and Laith Marouf, vocal critics of student fee hikes that had been imposed in tandem with generous administrative salary increases. They were also vocal defenders of Palestinian human rights.

Although the pair was ostensibly expelled for “violent behaviour,” the haste with which due process was dismissed in the case — the rector failed to interview any of the witnesses present on the scene other than his own vice-rector — suggests the university was more interested in shutting up the troublemakers than hearing them out.

Eventually, in April, the Board of Governors overturned the decision and reinstated the students.

Soon after expelling Keefer and Marouf, Lowy, displeased with the views expressed in the controversial student agenda produced by Concordia’s student union, called on the Province of Quebec to clamp down on the student government saying the union was encouraging illegal activities like (gasp) civil disobedience.

Exploiting the post-September-11 wave of paranoia, Lowy’s demand for government action was made just days after B’nai Brith spokesperson Frank Dimant wondered (as quoted in the Montreal Gazette) if the student agenda was “for Osama bin Ladenâe(TM)s youth program in North America.”

The rector’s bid to bring down the elected student government was a move intended to silence free speech, not an attempt to engage in any kind of debate. Note, for example, that he didn’t simply argue his case for why the authors in the student union publication were mistaken and ought not to be listened to.

Instead, he asked the provincialauthorities to shut down the student union, which would have had the no-doubt pleasant side-effect of silencing his critics.

I, too, have the distinction of having been included in Lowy’s complaint to provincial authorities, including the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice, for a series of articles I wrote for student union publications about the ethically questionable activities of some of Concordia’s corporate partners. Among them was Pratt and Whitney, the proud supplier of F16 engines to the Israeli military. (You know, those planes that do “surgical strikes” on Palestinian targets that also manage to produce hundreds of injuries and deaths.)

Once again, this is “free speech” in action.

The rationale for the complaint to the provincial government is instructive. Lowy argued that the accusations contained in my writings caused some of Concordia’s corporatepartners to pull out of university career fairs. The founding legal documents of the student union require it to “promote the interests of students.”

Now follow closely or you will miss the infraction: publication of information (whose truth has never been denied by the university or its corporate partners) that discourages corporate participation in university affairs constitutes a violation of the student union’s founding principles because it is in students’ interests to have corporations at their job fairs.

In other words, publishing anything (true or false, libellous or factual) that discourages corporate involvement in the university is illegal. This is probably not exactly what was intended by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but it sounds legal enough.

Nevertheless, the Province didn’t bite. No doubt, undertaking such an investigation would have involved too much bureaucracy. Quebec would have had to set up an equivalent to the U.S.’s Special House Committee on Un-American Activities (Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous anti-communist Congress committee of the 1950s, used to malign and harass people they disagreed with).

Today the tales of “blacklisting,” manipulation and power gone out of control seem almost like fiction.

Or not.

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