Citizen Action Monitor

Were students’ rights to freedom of expression violated by vote to defer ratification of BDS results?

And will students be denied the right to implement BDS, a morally just cause?

No 1008 Posted by fw, March 15, 2014

In a front page story in yesterday’s Windsor Star, reposted below, another act in what has become a morality tale was played out with news that University of Windsor Students’ Alliance (UWSA) has decided “to wait….to get all information possible from all sources” related to the BDS referendum.

There are actually two overlooked moralities in play in the ongoing controversy – the morality of freedom of expression and the morality of a BDS campaign as a non-violent action to support the Palestinian cause for justice. In this post, ‘morality’ is used in the general sense of referring to a code of conduct that reasonable persons would endorse.

It’s important to keep in mind the BDS question put to undergrads in a referendum vote: “the referendum question asks the UWSA to participate in BDS by simply divesting from ‘companies that support or profit from Israeli war crimes, occupation and oppression,’ which is following the BDS approach of the United Church of Canada, CUPE Ontario, and the many other student unions who have passed BDS.” (Source: U of Windsor’s Palestinian group defends BDS Referendum vote).

The issue of the morality of freedom of expression

To put the morality of freedom of expression in context, consider what Ian Clough had to say a week ago during a March 7 interview on CJAM, a nonprofit campus-based community radio station. Interviewee Ian Clough, also affiliated with the radio station, alleged “unprecedented” administration interference in the students’ referendum process

“…this level of manipulation by the administration, in such a public way from Dr. Wildeman and the administration is unprecedented, at least since Dr. Wildeman has been here at the university. And the UWSA [University of Windsor Students’ Alliance] has had some really corrupt elections over the past few years and never once has the administration stepped in to say something. So when the administration says that they’ve had complaints about how the referendum was run, that’s just a façade and excuse to get involved. I can tell you from first-hand experience there’s been horrible, horrible corruption with UWSA elections.” (This remark by Clough begins at about the 25:34-minute mark in the broadcast).

If Clough’s (unconfirmed) allegation is accurate, the case can be made that the administration’s interference in the BDS referendum may be tantamount to unwarranted suppression of students’ freedom of expression.

To elaborate, the right to freedom of expression is recognized under Article 19 of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others”.

Paying particular attention to the clause in article 19 that begins: “the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” — in the case of the BDS referendum, – Did the university’s Palestinian Solidarity Group (PSG) follow university “duties and responsibilities” necessary “for respect of the rights or reputations of others”? PSG president, Mohammed Almoayad, maintained in a written statement that PSG did everything expected of it to comply with the university’s duties and responsibilities associated with conducting the BDS referendum, including meeting with university president Dr. Wildeman.

As it turned out, the referendum was approved, was carried out, and was successful. UWSA was bound to participate in BDS by simply divesting from “companies that support or profit from Israeli war crimes, occupation and oppression.”

Now, consider the sequence of events following the successful referendum vote –

March 3 — In reporting the results of the referendum, the Windsor Star ran a front page story provocatively titled Students OK controversial referendum, with the subheadings “Vote raises complaints, safety concerns” and “I THINK THE REFERENDUM WILL JUST LEAD TO A MORE HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT ON CAMPUS.” The story mentions that university president “Wildeman said after ‘a lot of complaints’ were expressed, he released the statement to let the community know the university is taking the complaints seriously.” (To read my post on the Windsor Star story, click on Newspaper article about student vote favouring boycott of Israel ignites readers’ angry comments).

March 4University president’s letter to Students’ Alliance, in which he writes: “I am requesting you to defer the receipt of that report and the finalization of the referendum process until the UWSA and the University have completed their investigations.” (Source: Shakeup.com, CJAM Radio, hosted by Paul Chislet)

March 5UWSA letter responding to UWindsor president. The letter outlines the UWSA’s process, which remains to be carried out following the referendum. The letter includes this revealing passage: “We are aware there have been complaints about the process for this referendum. All complaints are to be brought to our CRO [Chief Returning Officer], and then appeals are sent to our Electroral Monitoring Committee. EMC will then render a decision based on the evidence provided that will be brought forward to [UWSA] council in the form of a final report….The UWSA will continue to work together with the University to work towards the best situation for all involved.” (Source: Shakeup.com, CJAM Radio, hosted by Paul Chislet).

March 13 – A Windsor Star story titled, Firm threatens to cut ties to U of W over referendum, reports that the president of a local consulting engineering company is threatening to cut ties to the University of Windsor if it does not “obliterate” a recent student BDS referendum. (For my post on the Star story, click on Company president resorts to intimidation to pressure U of Windsor to “obliterate” BDS referendum).

March 14 – The Windsor Star story titled U of W student alliance defers Israel boycott (reposted below) notes that “Earlier this month [March 5], Wildeman publicly sent a letter to the UWSA asking for the BDS referendum to be deferred until university administration completes its own investigation into complaints that the student vote wasn’t conducted properly.” The story also mentions that Jake DeJong, UWSA’s vice president of university affairs, agreed with the decision to wait: “We’ve had some issues with elections in the past, and the validity of them … Before we even consider accepting results, we should get all information possible from all sources.”

This sequence of events raises serious concerns regarding unwarranted interference by university administration in the referendum process. Starting with a BDS referendum process that appears to have met all the operational requirements of UWSA’s constitution, by-laws and policies, including a meeting with the president, the process has been derailed by the Students’ Alliance decision to defer a decision until later this month. The late intervention by the university president in a legitimate and faultless independent student affairs process, seems unwarranted.

In this context, Almoayad’s comment that “They [the Students’ Alliance] basically caved in to the administration” is a reasonable presumption.

Returning to the overlooked moral issue, the students’ right to freedom of expression, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, appears to have been violated by university administration’s interference, notably after the Windsor Star stirred the pot of controversy with its provocative coverage of the vote.

The issue of the morality of the BDS campaign

There is another overlooked moral issue in this BDS story. BDS opponents are quick to claim the campaign is anti-Semitic, a hate crime even. Why equate a non-violent movement whose main objective is to achieve equal rights for all citizens whether living in Israel or the occupied territories with prejudice and anti-Semitism? BDS is not anti-Semitic. The campaign’s intention is to pose a serious and legitimate non-violent challenge to Israel’s territorial claims that extend to the West Bank, Gaza and desire perpetual control of Palestinian resources, air, water, land and sea. The BDS campaign reasserted the relevance of the Charter of Nuremberg, which declared forced deportation and uprooting of civilian populations to be both a war crime and a crime against humanity. In short, BDS is a morally just cause. (Source: The campaign against BDS is a deliberate choice to maintain the status quo by David Schwartzman and Mai Abdul Rahman, Mondoweiss, February 18, 2014).

To conclude this segment, if the university caves in to internal and external pressure and kills the BDS referendum it will have violated students’ right to freedom of expression and rejected, without just cause, the implementation of a morally defensible BDS campaign

The Windsor Star must accept some responsibility for the misguided level of debate surrounding the referendum vote. Its pro-Israeli reporting over the years has failed to ensure that readers have a responsibly informed understanding about the Palestinian BDS campaign and Israeli policies and military actions that target innocent Palestinians.

Having said this, the Star’s recent publication of pro-Palestinian letters to the editor and its balanced coverage in the following story may signal a welcome change in its reporting of Israeli-Palestinian news.

*****

U of W student alliance defers Israel boycott by Dalson Chen, Windsor Star, March 14, 2014

They caved in, solidarity group leader charges

“BY DEFERRING THIS, WE’RE NOT CEDING TO ANYONE’S AUTHORITY.” — JORDAN RENAUD

The University of Windsor Students’ Alliance has deferred its controversial endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — essentially following the wishes of university president Alan Wildeman.

At a meeting on Thursday night, student council voted 18 to 14 not to receive the chief returning officer’s report on last month’s student referendum — which would have ratified UWSA’s official support of the BDS movement against Israel.

Now the matter will be delayed at least until the UWSA’s annual general meeting on March 26.

“It’s been requested that we should wait,” UWSA president Rob Crawford said at the meeting.

Jake DeJong, UWSA’s vice president of university affairs, agreed.

“We’ve had some issues with elections in the past, and the validity of them … Before we even consider accepting results, we should get all information possible from all sources,” he said.

But Mohammed Almoayad — president of the university’s Palestinian Solidarity Group — was disappointed with the deferral.

“They basically caved in to the administration,” Almoayad said outside of the meeting room.

Earlier this month, Wildeman publicly sent a letter to the UWSA asking for the BDS referendum to be deferred until university administration completes its own investigation into complaints that the student vote wasn’t conducted properly. Almoayad called the letter “unprecedented,” and pointed out that Wildeman has no jurisdiction over the UWSA.

“Administration is under a lot of pressure from people who are against BDS and Palestinian activism. We feel their ultimate goal is to try to find a way to stop this (referendum) from going through,” Almoayad said.

The referendum took place from Feb. 27 to March 1. A total of 798 undergraduate students voted in favour of supporting the BDS movement, while 585 voted against it.

“This was a democratic process,” Almoayad argued. “Students need to be totally autonomous in the way they make decisions.”

Almoayad said he knows there are faculty members who disagree with Wildeman’s intervention in the issue, and the organization Independent Jewish Voices Canada has also come forward in support of the student vote.

Almoayad said the Palestinian Solidarity Group was aware of the controversial nature of the referendum question, but took pains to consult with others and ensure fairness. There were discussions with legal counsel and the human rights office.

Almoayad said he even met with Wildeman prior to the vote taking place.

“We never expected (administration) to interfere like this … (to have) the audacity to try to stop the UWSA’s democratic processes.”

As for accusations that the BDS movement is anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic — charges that have come from such public figures as Essex MP Jeff Watson and federal minister Jason Kenney — Almoayad said that is far from the case.

“Whenever criticism of Israel happens on almost any level … people will call it anti-Semitic,” Almoayad said. “They’ll find ways to twist it.

“To us, this is a desperate, weak tactic. There are real human rights violations. There are cases where Palestinians have been killed. We have family members living under this military occupation (in the West Bank).”

Almoayad stressed that the BDS movement targets specific companies that support Israeli settlement of the occupied territories. He pointed out the BDS movement has been endorsed by such organizations as CUPE, CUPW, and the United Church of Canada.

But political science student Jordan Renaud said he’s glad UWSA council is delaying its endorsement.

“I trust the judgment of Dr. Wildeman and the administration,” Renaud said. “By deferring this, we’re not ceding to anyone’s authority. This went to a democratic vote within council.

“This is not cancelling (the referendum). This is not saying ‘Don’t ratify it.’ “This is a deferral.”

MY COMMENT RE THE WINDSOR STAR STORY

In response to Jordan Renaud, the central issue here is the violation of students’ rights to freedom of expression. Dr. Wildeman may indeed be an honourable and trustworthy person, but that is not the issue.

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