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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2008

A Comedy of Errors

By Neil McLaughlin
In the digital age, campus controversies quickly become public in ways that never happened in the past, says Neil McLaughlin.
In the digital age, campus controversies quickly become public in ways that never happened in the past, says Neil McLaughlin.
McMaster University: A Comedy of Errors over Anti-Israeli Protests
The recent controversy over “Israeli Apartheid Week” at McMaster University was simultaneously a comedy of errors and an important sign of challenges to come for academic freedom on Canadian campuses.

The confusion began in early February with a carelessly-worded and inappropriate e-mail sent from the provost of the university to a Hamilton area pro-Israel activist. The e-mail referred to “hate-mongering” promoted by students involved in Israeli Apartheid Week on campus.

The issue gained international attention when the conservative Israeli blogger Steven Plaut jubilantly suggested the provost’s office had “banned all campus use of the term ‘Israeli apartheid’ as hate speech.”

Innuendos and accusations then ignited a heated faculty and student discussion of free speech on McMaster’s campus, a globally-circulated on-line petition in support of the alleged “ban,” an op-ed piece in the National Post and a student-organized public forum attended by more than 300 people.

While the public forum was notable for its commitment to freedom of speech and civility across diverse and passionately held points of view, key questions remain unresolved. Were the issues involved not so serious, it would be easy to laugh at the comedy of errors that characterized these events.

Apparent repeated miscommunications, combined with evasive damage control tactics undertaken by McMaster’s administration, resulted in a widely-advertised protest against a ban that apparently never happened. Almost 2,000 people worldwide have now signed a pro-Israel on-line petition supporting a position McMaster’s own administration now claims it didn’t take.

Peter George, McMaster’s president, issued a public statement Feb. 28 saying the university hadn’t banned the phrase “Israeli apartheid,” clarifying the confusion without resolving key questions.

Focusing on either the clearly offensive banners displayed after the public forum by a small number of shipped-in Toronto-area student activists, as the local media did, or some of the inappropriate rhetoric espoused by certain elements among pro-Israel activists — both on and off campus — does not help McMaster address the key issues.

Who was responsible for McMaster’s miscommunications? What is the appropriate limit to free speech at McMaster? And who gets to decide?

Few faculty on the McMaster campus believe students making analogies between Israel and South Africa should be disciplined or criminalized. This is true even though many of us don’t think that use of the phrase “Israel apartheid” is a productive or useful way forward in a tragic and violent conflict with more than enough blame to go around. This is certainly my position as a supporter of a just and fair two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our increasingly multicultural campuses, however, have more work to do to find appropriate language for student codes of conduct that ensure no-one gets blindsided by university or student government administrators tempted to make politically-motivated decisions about what is or is not acceptable speech.

The McMaster incident was complicated by the fact that in the digital age, campus controversies quickly become public in ways that never happened in the past. In the United States, in particular, we have seen the emergence of various organizations and campaigns such as Campus Watch, designed to monitor and then suppress political speech on campus under the rubric of opposition to alleged radical indoctrination.

While most members of the McMaster community do not want to close down views with which we disagree, we are now hearing echoes of American-style attacks on “tenured radicals,” where professors and students holding controversial views are painted as extremists (sometimes directly, and sometimes through innuendo), or suspect as sympathetic to terrorism.

Canadian universities, of course, must face other difficult debates on such issues as abortion, same sex marriage, and the Danish cartoon and recent Dutch movie controversies. While free speech is constitutionally more limited here than in the U.S., we should be proud that we have largely avoided American-style polarized ideological wars (today as during McCarthyism).

It remains to be seen whether the comic farce that was McMaster’s apartheid ban was in fact a tempest in a teapot or the beginnings of the Americanization of Canadian campuses along the lines promoted by such extremists as David Horowitz.

University administrators need to step back from attempts to intimidate political dissent and to suppress alternative ideas on Canadian universities, trusting our students and faculty to maintain an appropriate balance between controversy, free speech and personal safety on campus within the limits of the law. And I would certainly caution people against signing a misleading petition posted by the organization Scholars for Peace in the Middle East on McMaster’s alleged position in opposition to free speech and academic freedom.

Neil McLaughlin is an associate professor of sociology at McMaster University.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in the March 25 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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