The leaves on campus are opening to the spring sun, but for a group of U of T’s leading activists, the summer has a cloud over it.
On June 3, 14 anti-fee-hike campaigners appeared in court to set a trial date on criminal charges many say are among the most serious ever faced by U of T protesters.
These include forcible confinement, forcible detainer relating to the illegal use of property; mischief; and uttering a death threat. Students also face possible suspension or expulsion.
Among those awaiting trial are the Student Union’s VP of university affairs, the president of the Arts and Science Student Union, two Ontario Public Interest Research Group organizers and the coordinator of and staffer for the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students.
The current debacle began March 20, when 40 students and supporters, demonstrating against a 13 to 20 per cent hike in New College residence fees, marched to Simcoe Hall, where U of T’s senior offices are housed. There they demanded to speak to president David Naylor.
It’s here the narratives diverge wildly. Students say the protest was completely peaceful but that they were forcibly removed by campus police; the university alleges that protesters blocked the hallway, preventing staff from leaving the provost’s office, and engaged in one case in the uttering of death threats.
Either way, in April the university began investigations under the Code of Student Conduct, which holds that “university members are not, as such, immune from the criminal and civil laws of the wider political units to which they belong.”
The administration then, according to a statement by university VP Vivek Goel, “submitted evidence from the incident to Toronto Police Services for them to assess whether charges might be warranted.” Police then laid charges, initiating a legal process over which the university now says it has no control.
Detective Mike Leone of 52 Division says it was campus police who conducted most of the investigation, that the probe is not over and anyone with further information should contact him.
According to Robert Steiner, the university’s assistant vice-president (strategic communications), “This was anything but a peaceful protest. The forcible confinement and mischief charges are due to the fact that staff were not able to open the door [and leave the office.]”
But defence lawyer Michael Leitold says the confinement charge is a very heavy one, in that students are effectively being accused of kidnapping. “It’s very serious. It can lead to 10 years in prison, in theory.’’
Another counsel for the accused, math prof Peter Rosenthal, says, “It’s outrageous to make students face criminal charges for what I understand was a completely peaceful demonstration about an important issue.”
Indeed, it appears this is the first time in more than 30 years that U of T has laid such serious charges against student dissenters.
In 1999, a three-day occupation of the president’s office for geophysics prof Kin-Yip Chun, who alleged discriminatory hiring practices, brought attention to his case. A year later, a settlement was reached that saw him reinstated as associate professor.
A 10-day sit-in by Students Against Sweatshops in 2000, also in the president’s office, was followed by the adoption of a campus No Sweatshop Policy.
Neither of those protests resulted in criminal charges or penalties under the Code of Student Conduct.
Says Gabriela Rodriguez, one of those charged, “This administration has consistently ignored student demands. Now it is targeting us in a malicious campaign.”