Though free speech is always a costly affair, no one quite expected the hefty price tag it now carries at York U.Responding to the noisy rift between supporters and opponents of Israeli policies, the university is now forcing student groups to bear the costs of security for controversial meetings, a move many say puts a nasty chill on intellectual debate.
And in the midst of an unsettling state of affairs where two camps cast paranoid eyes on each other's actions, there are suspicions that the administration may be playing favourites.
The issue first arose over the tumult surrounding the visit of Daniel Pipes , a U.S. Mideast observer whose views on Muslims have been labelled racist. For his meeting, York higher-ups demanded the sponsoring York Jewish Student Federation (JSF) pay half the security costs and put down a $25,000 deposit, though the latter was eventually waived.
The university then paid the rest, covering additional costs such as maintenance and lighting -- assistance not extended to organizers of a Palestinian solidarity forum held weeks later. That meeting, hosted by the teaching assistants of York's CUPE local 3903, featured activists Jaggi Singh and Leila Khaled Mouammar, both participants in the Concordia anti-Netanyahu riots last September.
Four days prior to the forum, Marc Levy, a member of York's Jewish Student Federation, sent a letter to university president Lorna Marsden. The letter, which Levy provided to me, read: "I am worried about an upcoming event at York University. My concern is that an atmosphere conducive to learning is being eroded.... Singh and Mouammar ought not to be allowed to (speak) on university premises."
Forum organizers suspect the letter sparked the administration's demand that they pay for security -- an unwelcome request that has met protest and continues to feed debate. Although CUPE has not yet received the bill, spokesperson Neil Braganza says the group was notified the tab could reach $5,000. He charges that the administration wants to "put a lid on otherwise intelligent political debate."
University officials deny there is any merit to this argument, claiming again and again that making groups pay for security is an aid, not a deterrent, to free speech. And they point out that the policy, though never exercised to this extent, is actually over 10 years old. York director of security Tom Arnold won't confirm that it was a complaint from a Jewish Student Federation member that pushed the policy into action, but he does say there was "heightened awareness because of what happened at Concordia."
To respond to the current crisis, the admin has formed an advisory committee designed to assess the degree of controversy external speakers may bring to campus. Now every invitation to speak must be reviewed no later than one week prior to the visit -- a piece of scrutiny likely to be perceived as needless interference by those who claim the university's grip on free speech is already too tight.
Still, many can't get over the optics of a situation that looks like the JSF got half its expenses paid while those with opposing views had to foot the entire bill.
York media relations director Cim Nunn denies there's a double standard at work. "No one wants to find that the university is placing itself (on either side) by agreeing to fund an event. The policy is pretty clear-cut and remains the same for everybody. How it gets negotiated on a case-by-case basis is information I'm not privy to." Nunn suggests that the difference may have to do with the fact that Pipes spoke in the afternoon while the CUPE meeting was at night, when additional security officers had to be called in.
For their part, the Canadian Jewish Congress is disturbed by the whole chain of events in general and the proposed $25,000 deposit in particular. Says the Congress's Len Rudner, "Once you accept the fact that arranging for security and paying for it is part of the democratic process, frankly, you've crossed a terrible Rubicon. What you've fundamentally said is that you don't have freedom of speech unless there are security guards to back it up. That to me is far more pressing than who is going to pay for them."
Neither side, it seems, is much comforted by the admin's response to current tensions. But it's astonishing how similar the opponents are in their conditional commitment to free expression. Ali Mokdad of York's Now End War and Sanctions on Iraq declares himself disturbed by security's presence at controversial events, saying it "intimidates people's ideas.' But he makes it clear that he's less concerned about the limitations on debate than he is about the fact that the admin allowed Pipes to speak.
What becomes increasingly evident is that both sides are advocating for so-called "free speech' by demanding that certain political figures be barred from campus. The point is raised to Mokdad, who says he realizes the irony but can't help feeling the administration has an anti-Arab bias. This parallels Levy's contention that "Jaggi Singh only served to get people on campus who don't like Israel riled up" and that "there need to be reasonable limits on free speech."
But some worry that a terrible precedent is being established here. One professor who wishes to be nameless says he's disturbed that York isn't taking responsibility for the costs of unlimited debate and is instead downloading it. "The university has a responsibility to all the members of the community for an exchange of ideas and the security of persons involved in that exchange," he says.
According to Sandra Pierre, VP of equality for the York Student Federation, "When we leave security up to the university, we get into censoring.' Although she doesn't believe the admin has a political bias, she does worry that security costs threaten free speech. "Implementing high security costs is a restraint. If a speaker is going to cost a lot, then you many not want him or her to come -- that's infringing on speech."