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Universities graded on level of free speech

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McGill University’s Royal Victoria College

MONTREAL— McGill University’s student union rightfully deserves its failing grade for free speech for making a campus group change the name of a pro-Israel party it organized last year, according to a former group member.

“I don’t know if I feel vindicated,” one-time McGill Friends of Israel (MFI) board member Russel Sitrit-Leibovitch told The CJN just before making aliyah Sept. 29.

“But it is definitely satisfying to know that McGill got the bad grade it deserved.”

Overall, McGill got a D average in the 2013 “Campus Freedom Index” released Sept. 24 by the three-year-old, Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF).

According to the report, 12 of the 45 universities in the index were involved in supportive and critical incidents related to Israel that were compromised by censorship. Others included Guelph University, York University, the University of Ottawa, and Wilfrid Laurier.

The report was co-authored by centre president John Carpay and communications co-ordinator Michael Kennedy.

Kennedy was quoted as saying that free speech appears “very much in danger” on Canadian campuses.

“You have universities that cancel events organized by student groups because the ideas they’re discussing are too controversial, and you have student unions who deny certification to student groups based on their views as well,” he said.

The index rated the “state of free speech” – or lack thereof – at 45 Canadian public universities and their respective student unions, comparatively rating their policies (“what they say”), against their practices (“what they do”).

The grades could range from A to F.

It found that 23 – more than half – “failed to uphold free expression rights on campus” because of censorship.

The incident at McGill in March 2012 coincided with Israeli Apartheid Week, which MFI – now renamed McGill Students for Israel – decided to counter with an “Israel-A-Party” event that Sitrit-Leibovitch, then a 21-year-old political science student, helped to organize.

But McGill’s student union – the Student Society (SSMU) – said the event’s title “made a mockery of oppressions” and it obliged MFI to change it or risk losing its club status.

That decision, the Calgary centre said in its report, “sets a dangerous precedent for student groups who, like MFI, want to maximize campus interest in their events by using creative language.”

Reacting to the index, SSMU president Jonathan Mooney said it’s an ongoing challenge to strike a balance between what is – or isn’t – acceptable to say on campus, because it’s a “subjective exercise.” Mooney was not on the SSMU executive at the time of the “Israel-A-Party” incident.

The University of Manitoba Students’ Union tied McGill and five others as second-worst student union for its resolution to strip student group status from an anti-“Israeli apartheid” club.

Six of the seven second-worst student unions got Fs for restricting free speech, the seventh a D. They included the unions at Queen’s University, Ryerson University, and the University of Calgary.

However, Judy Zelikovitz, vice president (university and local partner services) for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said that she has read some of the report, and found some of the findings to be dubious.

“While the report makes some valid points, other passages are just not credible and suggest to us that the entire report should be taken with a grain of salt,” she said.  One example is the section where the researchers claim that referendum campaign spending limits constitute monetary obstacles on students exercising their right to free speech.

The jccf.ca website states that the centre was founded as a “voice for freedom in Canada’s courtrooms,” and its mission is “to defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through litigation and education.”

 With files from Cara Stern

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