Liberal, Green MPs probe universities’ free speech policies as Israel-Hamas war grinds on

As the conflict in the Middle East rages on, 13 Liberal and Green MPs are asking 27 Canadian universities to explain how they’re protecting faculty, staff and students from blowback over advocacy for Palestinians or Israelis.

“We have seen a rise in antisemitism, anti-Arab discrimination, anti-Palestinian discrimination and Islamophobia,” said Liberal MP for Brampton-Centre Shafqat Ali, who initiated the letter. It was sent to the universities on February 4.

“We thought we should have a conversation with university presidents about how they’re dealing with this situation.”

Ali was one of the five MPs who travelled to the Occupied West Bank and Jordan recently to hear from Palestinians suffering because of the conflict, and from the non-governmental organizations working to help them.

The other MPs who signed the letter are largely Liberals, although the two Green Party MPs also added their names to the document.

Letter protests ‘vilification’ of Palestinians

While the letter does not cite any specific incidents, it does ask about steps taken to prevent eruptions of intolerance on campus.

“Unfortunately,” the MPs say in the letter, “dehumanization and vilification of the Palestinian people, and stigmatization of those advocating for their legitimate aspirations, are commonplace. While not occurring within the university settling alone, students, faculty and staff are being directly impacted in significant ways.”

The MPs say they’ve heard multiple complaints about students or faculty “being profiled, reprimanded, and, in some cases, disciplined” for speaking out about the conflict. They say they’ve heard of medical and law students “losing their employment or placements for their views and opinions on the Middle East conflict.”

Liberal MP for Brampton Centre Shafqat Ali in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the letter, the MPs ask the universities what they’re doing to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression and support students and faculty who are “uncomfortable, upset or offended” by the debate, and if they are committing to engaging with student groups and unions.

“As a society, we seem to be operating with a hair trigger. We get angry before we think, and one place that shouldn’t happen is on our university campuses,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told CBC News.

“That is a place for critical thinking. That’s a place for free exchange of ideas. And obviously it’s been more pronounced, perhaps in the United States than Canada, but there’s a lot of frayed tempers and emotions “

The war’s impact on Canadian universities

The war’s effects on students and faculty are being felt at post-secondary institutions across the country.

In October, York University pushed back against three different student unions after they issued a joint statement on the Israel-Hamas war voicing solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle against “settler colonialism, apartheid and genocide.”

The university threatened to withdraw recognition from the student organizations, which could have ended their access to physical space on campus, student levies and other financial aid, and to university-hosted email addresses and websites.

WATCH: Universities navigate tensions over Israel-Hamas war    

Canadian campuses navigate Israel-Hamas war tensions

Protests and student union statements about the Israel-Hamas war are creating tensions on Canadian campuses and raising questions about how universities manage free expression.

That same month, Jewish students at Western University spoke out after two young men ripped posters of Israeli hostages off a wall on campus and tossed them in the garbage. The incident was captured on video.

And in November, the University of Ottawa came in for criticism when it suspended a medical resident, Dr. Yipeng Ge, over his social media posts supporting Palestinians. In those posts, Ge referred to the Palestinian experience as one of “apartheid” and “settler colonialism.”

A petition to reinstate him gathered 65,000 signatures. Ge said last month that the university had offered him his position back, but he declined.

A portrait of a man
Dr. Yipeng Ge was suspended in November 2023 after publishing a series of pro-Palestinian social media posts. (Twitter)

Ge welcomed the MPs’ letter and said it could help start a long-overdue conversation on campus.

“I think the contents of this letter and what these members of Parliament are calling for is really important. I am disappointed that it has come in February and [not] earlier,” he said, adding that the large number of incidents over the past few months probably explains the timing.

He said he might have avoided suspension had the letter come out sooner.

“I don’t think it’s proper for schools to take sides with anybody,” said Paul Chiang, Liberal MP for Markham-Unionville and parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Marc Miller. He also signed the letter. “They should be free for all to express their personal views.”

In December, five Liberal MPs wrote a letter to universities asking if calls for genocide against Jews or the eradication of Israel violate their academic codes of conduct. In January, Anthony Housefather, one of those five MPs, tweeted that the universities all replied that such calls for the extermination of Jews or the elimination of Israel do violate those codes of conduct.

The authors of this letter have given the universities until February 26 to respond, and say their answers may be tabled in House of Commons proceedings.

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