Nearly four months after the incident that triggered it, an internal review conducted by Western officials has reaffirmed the university’s position that two London men – Michael Roy and Anthony Verberckmoes – will remain banned from campus for a year.
But while the university has officially closed the book on it, this saga centred on student safety, free speech and proper paperwork may not be over just yet.
On Feb. 1, the student-run group Israel on Campus had scheduled Israel Day, a cultural celebration in the University Community Centre (UCC) Atrium. Months in the planning, students gave up a tremendous amount of free time to make the event a success, said Sara Gurza, Israel on Campus president.
Early that afternoon, protesters – including members of the student-run Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights as well as Occupy London – crashed the event. The two dozen or so protesters formed a silent line across the Atrium.
“One of the club members told me that they heard there would be some sort of demonstration against our displays. Within five minutes of that, I noticed a huge congregation of people with their mouths duct-taped shut and holding signs blocking our booths,” Gurza said.
She contacted Mark Wellington, University Student’s Council (USC) student life manager, and then informed campus police.
“We had lots of concerns with regard to personal safety for the students themselves,” said Elgin Austen, Campus Community Police Services director. “They were sort-of huddled in the corner wondering what would happen next; we didn’t know what would happen next because we didn’t know who these people were.”
Roy and Verberckmoes were among the protesters, a group Roy described as a loose assembly of pro-Palestinian students and community members.
“No one approached me, no one said what are you doing, no one said what are you doing here?” said Roy, who posted an edited version of events to YouTube.
Campus police took no action at the time. While no violence occurred during the hour-long protest, Austen was concerned about its potential. “From an outsider’s perspective, you had a leaderless mob that basically took over the space,” he said. “When you have a leaderless mob, there really is no protocol. It is a very uncertain environment.”
Gurza worried about the potential as well.
“My safety and security did not feel threatened at first, but as more students who had worked extremely hard on this day became more upset, and there were more confrontations and hateful remarks being made by the protesters, I became increasingly worried and was maintaining close communication with the police regarding their plan of action,” said Gurza, who graduated this semester with an honors bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Jewish Studies.
She continued, “However, I did feel threatened being a supporter of Israel and a Jew. The signs were clearly anti-Israel, but they were also anti-Semitic and spoke of the Holocaust. Some of the protesters were yelling anti-Semitic comments at my club members and this was extremely uncomfortable and inappropriate.”
Roy disagreed. “The whole ‘people being afraid’ thing,” he said. “I didn’t get that at all. You had a whole lot of silent protesters standing there, saying nothing. How is that anything to be fearful of?”
In cases like this, the USC, which runs the UCC, utilizes its Controversial Events policy which requires a minimum of 10 business days notice for anything deemed controversial “as Western and the USC require time to review each particular situation and, where necessary, make the appropriate preparations to ensure public safety.”
Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights could have applied for a permit to protest Israel Day, but they did not, said Andrew Forgione, USC president.
“If they had filed the appropriate paperwork and given the USC proper notice, they would have been given an area of the Atrium on a separate day/day-of to express their views on the matter,” he said. “The USC would also prepare for security costs and inform the original organizers of the protest. If students want to counter-protest, the USC will give them a full day right after the event to allow their voices to be heard.”
Austen echoed the offer. “When we have disagreements, particularly on political disagreements, when one groups wishes to protest another group, we’ve done that with very, very short notice,” he said. “And it has worked out very well.”
As a result of the protest, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights was warned by the USC, and a notice was placed in the group’s record by the Clubs Governance Committee, an all-student governing body. If Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights chooses to violate the policy again, they will face sanctions ranging from probation to deratification.
“Israel on Campus followed every protocol and policy put in place in order to have an authorized and approved event,” Gurza said. “If the protesters wanted to have their voice heard, then they should have done it elsewhere. When students work so hard to put something together and take so much of their free time to be involved in extra-curriculars, something Western prides itself on, they should be given the opportunity to have their programs run smoothly and successfully.”
“The USC needs to treat all 200-plus clubs equally, and when one club violates a policy, it opens the floodgates for other clubs to do the same,” Forgione said.
Western’s policy is even more clearly defined. Western Policy and Procedures, Section 1.5 Picketing, Distribution of Literature and Related Activities, demands protesters “…cause no interference with the orderly functioning of the university nor infringement on the rights or privileges of others, which rights include the right to peaceful pursuit of campus activities and to enjoy the rule of law. …”
“There is no way, under any of our frameworks anyone could identify, that (what happened) was acceptable,” said Gitta Kulczycki, Western’s vice-president (resources and operations). “We believe we have to preserve the ability and opportunity for our students to have space to have discourse. It’s about safety and respecting and protecting the opportunity for freedom of expression for students in a manner they don’t feel threatened or intimidated.”
If violations occur, university community members can face punishment from internal bodies (e.g. Human Resources) or governing policies (e.g. Code of Student Conduct). Viewed by the university as non-Western community members, however, Roy and Verberckmoes would be treated differently.
“(For outside members of the community), when a person is engaged in a prohibited activity, that’s a violation of the Trespass to Property Act, and that’s why they got the tickets to begin with,” Austen said. “Thanks very much, but don’t come back – only for a year, not forever. … If they don’t have any accountability back to the institution itself, then they are going to be prohibited from being here if they are not respecting the rules that are here protecting others.”
The university bans between 25-30 individuals a year, Austen said, mostly potential criminal elements cruising the campus.
Trespass to property applies because the university is a corporation, incorporated under the UWO Act, and run by its board of governors. Therefore, all property vests under the board and is considered private, not government, property. That distinction has been challenged unsuccessfully in the past, said Stephen Jarrett, Western’s legal counsel.
With no connection to Western, Verberckmoes has received little attention. But Roy has been a different story, perhaps because of his tangential connection to the university as well as alt-journalist standing.
Roy is a volunteer with the CHRW news department, spending the last year working on various projects for the independent campus radio station. He also works as a citizen journalist for the media project, The Indignants, a London, Ont.-based group, which focuses its activism largely on media.
He said he took courses at Western “years ago,” but never graduated. He intended to return to classes in January, but that plan may be on hold now that his ban has been reaffirmed.
Roy found out about the ban weeks after the incident when he received a notice to pick up a letter at the Post Office. He didn’t and the letter was returned to the university. A month later, London police contacted Roy on his cell phone, requesting to meet. Roy met officers at a downtown McDonald’s, and was handed the notice.
Dated Feb. 10, the one-page Trespass to Property Notice issued by CCPS Sgt. Stephen Dykeman bans Roy from Western property for one year for “participating in a prohibited activity – unauthorized protest at UCC.”
Reaction, while not particularly immediate, has questioned the university’s handling of the incident.
On April 17, Nathalie Des Rosiers, Canadian Civil Liberties Association general counsel, penned a letter to Western President Amit Chakma, citing both bans and called on the university to reconsider its decision.
“We are concerned that Western may not have acted in a just and balanced manner,” Des Rosiers wrote. “It appears to have failed to ensure fairness and due process in arriving at its decision to issue the bans; and it has failed in its responsibility towards the maintenance of a free and democratic society through the vigorous protection and encouragement of the exercise of freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression on campus.”
On April 20, Bryce Traister, University of Western Ontario Faculty Association president, also penned a letter to the university president nodding to the university’s responsibilities to safety and free speech, but saying Roy (without mentioning Verberckmoes) was guilty of little more than failing to get a permit.
“Given the circumstances, the year-long ban is excessive and, ultimately, counter-productive. It sends a message that Western welcomes only the debate it approves,” Traister wrote. “The excessive punishment pits faculty committed to the terms of academic freedom against parents concerned about student safety. … Let’s use this as an opportunity to diffuse an escalating controversy by demonstrating Western University’s commitment to campus safety and to intellectual commitment.”
To date, neither group has followed up on their letters.
Perhaps the most public opposition to the bans came on April 19, when a group of university and community protesters attempted to meet with the university president in his office. (Chakma was out of country at the time.) They were stopped in the lobby of the president’s suite, and denied further denied entry. President’s office staff was removed and campus police were called to the scene.
Unlike the UCC protest, this was a far more vocal affair with catcalls and confrontation taking centre stage. Again, protesters posted an edited version of the events to YouTube. On that video, the banned Roy is seen.
What you don’t see, Austen pointed out, is the continued berating of officers and staff by certain protesters including a minor scuffle involving a young female reaching over the counter to take Austen’s cell phone, which he had been using to photograph participants. (That incident was captured on another video.)
On April 27, Chakma, through Malcolm Ruddock, executive assistant to the president, sent an email to those who requested a meeting in writing on the day of the protest by leaving their name and email address behind.
“Dr. Chakma is well aware of the concerns that have been raised, and considers issues of respectful conduct, campus safety, and freedom of expression to be very important to the proper functioning of the university. He has received several messages from individuals and groups expressing various points of view on these issues,” Ruddock wrote. “Further, the university is currently undertaking a review of the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the trespass notices, as well as the events of April 19. The results of that review will be made available publicly.
“For these reasons, we are not prepared to accede to your request to meet directly with the President. You are, of course, free to express your views and opinions in writing.”
Roy didn’t expect a presidential sitdown, but given the last few months, he has learned to expect the unexpected. “I think it’s a bizarre experience,” Roy said. “I really think it might open people’s eyes up to our education system and what’s going on.
“I hope they don’t drop the ban.”
On May 11, the university issued a brief, unsigned statement following the completion of its review. “Western has conducted a thorough review of the issues and has determined the trespass notices were appropriately issued. They will remain in effect,” the 86-word statement read, in part.
The statement offered no details as to how the review was conducted, who conducted it and what the criteria were. To critics, the review was a fait accompli. But Kulczycki, who headed the investigation, believes it was appropriate. Her team reviewed the incident again, as well as the actions taken by campus police, and determined the punishment fit.
“The individuals involved knew what the rules were,” she said. “So they didn’t just naively walk in on Feb. 1 and ‘Oh gosh, we didn’t know.’ No, that’s not true.”
The review doesn’t need to involve “a whole lot of people, just the right people,” she said.
Kulczycki also balks at the university’s motivation being labeled anything but honorable.
“Some have suggested this was an attempt to suppress free speech,” she said. “In fact, it was absolutely not at all. It was about preserving safety and our students’ opportunity as young people to have safe, respective discourse on divergent things.”
Forgione echoed her sentiment. “Students were complaining about feeling their safety was threatened and not being able to travel to the UCC, their community centre, without feeling comfortable. That is unacceptable to the USC, and the USC will ensure that our policies, which were created by students, are upheld and all clubs are treated fairly,” he said. “The USC does not support any groups silencing any other group of students on campus, and hence the USC allows for the process to stage protests/counter-protests for all our students.”
All said, many are still wondering, what’s next? Since the ban was issued, Roy has been on campus a number of times, speaking to groups and participating in various activities including the president’s office protest.
Roy plans to “chill a bit over the summer,” and regroup. He continues to connect with student groups, and come September, if the ban is still not revoked, he may “push it big time.”
“We’ve got some interesting times ahead,” said Roy, who was heading to Montreal for holiday weekend protests.
Austen explained Roy has been allowed to return without incident because his case was still under review. As that has now wrapped, and the ban upheld, Roy will be charged should he return to campus.
“The rights of one group don’t over-ride the rights of another,” Austen said. “The expectation is for respect and abiding by the rule of law, in this case university policies. And when those things are violated, there’s going to be consequences. The university needs to re-establish what those expectations are, and I think that’s what they are doing now.”