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Amid on-campus tensions brought on by Israel-Hamas war, experts worry about free expression

Sanad Al Ajrami has poured himself into helping organize rallies this month at his Toronto school, York University, in hopes of shining light on the plight of Palestinian people in Gaza — including family members he’s lost — during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

But a physical altercation with a stranger at the close of one recent rally left him in shock. “Somebody came up, stole the microphone from me … and almost knocked me into the fountain,” Al Ajrami, a second-year student, recalled. “I went to … grab the microphone back, and they punched and shoved me backwards.”

He said he still hasn’t heard from York security if any action was taken against that person.

If Canadian universities aren’t secure forums for education, debate and discussion, he said, “how are we going to get anywhere if we don’t have [these] safe spaces?”

Elsewhere on campus, Jacob Burman shared how tough it’s been for Jewish students, “especially [those] who are very visible or wear the Star of David, like me.” Standing alongside a peer holding an Israeli flag one day, the fourth-year student recalls being angrily shouted at by strangers and a fellow student he’s attended classes with since first year.

While protest rallies at school have so far been largely peaceful, and there are more security guards around campus, Burman said, the mood at York is different these days. “There’s been some flare-ups [before], but never anything this big, where I’ve actually been concerned for my safety.”

As heated discussions of the Israel-Hamas war ripple through different sectors of Canadian life, the upheaval in the Middle East has also increased tensions on many Canadian university campuses, with rallies held at multiple locations.

At schools like York University and Toronto Metropolitan University, student unions or other societies have been censured or criticized by school administrators for statements about the ongoing conflict.

Academics interested in freedom of expression on campus are alarmed to see dissent shifting into personal attacks and wary of a potential chill on free expression.

A close-up of a student's arm holding a protest sign, with the words '...from the West Bank. Defend political speech at York campus' shown.
A student holds a sign during a protest at York University in Toronto on Wednesday. (CBC)

Canadian campuses are a complicated space to navigate right now, whether you’re a student, a faculty member or an administrator, said Shannon Dea, a University of Regina philosophy professor, dean of arts and an expert in free expression and academic freedom.

“We’re hearing about escalating incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campuses and other public spaces right now,” she said. “People are coming together with a lot of pain and not always with a lot of compassion — and that’s making universities pretty tricky places right now.”

University administrators have a duty to defend academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus, Dea said, but also a duty to ensure campuses are safe for students, employees and community members.

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Campuses have hosted discussions and debate about the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories for decades — and they’ve been an important space to watch for many reasons, said Dax D’Orazio, a researcher of freedom of expression and public discourse in Canada.

First, with Canada’s multicultural makeup, there are naturally students from or with ties to the Mideast region attending university, he said.

School campuses are also seen as both “a really consequential political battleground” and a space where new, challenging ideas are bred, “incubating thought leaders that we’ll see in the decades to come,” said D’Orazio, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and a research affiliate with the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta’s law faculty in Edmonton.

A man with a shaved head looks off camera while standing in a sunny wooded area.
‘Universities are where we want to have critical, difficult, even uncomfortable debates and discussions about things that matter,’ says Dax D’Orazio, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University and a research affiliate with the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta. (Submitted by Dax D’Orazio)

In that climate, he said, university leaders should take care in how they navigate this period of dissenting opinions about the Middle East conflict and hew closely to applicable laws and existing policies when weighing any action against student unions, groups or individuals to prevent free expression from becoming a casualty of a hasty decision.

“Universities are where we want to have critical, difficult, even uncomfortable debates and discussions about things that matter both at home and abroad,” D’Orazio said.

“When universities aren’t able — either at the student body level or at the academic level — to have genuine robust debate and discussion about things that matter, that can cast a chill throughout the rest of society.”

Care and balance required

It’s vital that conversations about the Israel-Hamas war happen on campuses — at the very least to share information and resources about self-care with the school community, said Adam Muller, director of the peace and conflict studies program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. But he acknowledged that every action is a balancing act.

“Administrators [are] struggling to find the right kind of balance that, on the one hand, does justice to the suffering of the individuals that we see daily on television and at the same time restrains us enough so that when we express our positions on that suffering on the conflict, we do so in ways that don’t harm other people.”

Even his students, who were already exploring the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a peace-building lens, have found discussions challenging, Muller said.

“They’re finding extreme difficulty sharing their perspectives in a way that feels genuine to them. They’re on guard,” he said. “Even within a context like peace studies, with students who are learning to resolve conflict, we’re finding that they’re struggling — both in their private lives and in their scholarly lives — to talk about this issue.”

A man wearing glasses, a white dress shirt and rust-coloured sweater sits in an indoor room, with a fireplace and window seen behind him.
Adam Muller, director of the peace and conflict studies program at the University of Manitoba, says he’s concerned about situations where students have been targeted, for example, by having their personal contact information shared publicly. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Muller, as with Dea and D’Orazio, expressed alarm at the vengeful situations taking place on some campuses in the United States — for example, the public release of personal contact information of authors of statements deemed controversial —  and the notion that type of retaliation could spread to Canada.

“Vilifying [someone] personally for expressing a point that you don’t agree with is extremely worrisome…. It’s encouraging violence against these individuals,” he said.

Muller said he believes that difficult debates and conversations on university campuses require structure and consideration — and not simply unfettered free speech.

“We’re a place that cares about informed discussion, structured discussion and generous discussion of complicated issues — and whatever we can do … to cultivate this in the institution, we should be doing at this particular point in time,” Muller said. “We should be doing it generally, but of course there’s a crisis on right now that makes this particularly urgent.”

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