By Stephen D’Arcy, We demand free speech at Western University, Sunday, April 14, 2012
The City of London Ontario certainly benefits in innumerable ways from the presence of a major research university in this city. But the benefits flow in both directions. Western University needs Londoners as much as London needs Western.
In particular, the city and the university enjoy the benefits of a vigorous public sphere that stretches across the boundaries of Western’s campus to encompass the whole city.
At its best, this public sphere draws students, staff and faculty from the university, as well as citizens, activists, elected officials and advocacy groups from across London, into discussion about public policy, social justice and the common good. The voices of researchers, advocates, journalists, social critics and concerned citizens mingle in reasoned discussion that form the basis for democratic civic life.
We ought to be alarmed, therefore, when we see the university taking steps to target Londoners who visit the campus to contribute to public dialogue. Recently, Western issued an order prohibiting two London community activists from setting foot on any part of the university campus (Occupy architect battles campus ban, April 9).
Why would the university, through its campus community police service, choose to target activists from the wider city in this way? One might imagine these activists had engaged in some sort of violent or disruptive protest, hindering the capacity of the university to carry out its mission. In fact, they participated in a protest that was neither violent nor disruptive. Instead, it was a silent vigil, in which advocates for Palestinian human rights covered their mouths with tape, in a peaceful and non-confrontational protest during an Israel Day event taking place at Western.
Although the Palestine-Israel conflict is a controversial, sometimes emotional issue, this protest was neither violent nor disruptive, from either side. But there was disagreement. There was debate. There was even controversy and public expressions of dissent (albeit in silence). In short, what took place was the lifeblood of a democratic public sphere.
But a few weeks later, it was revealed two Londoners were banned from the campus in retaliation for their participation. There was no trial or hearing. There was no invitation to the targeted Londoners to present their side of the story. There was simply a notice delivered by police, informing the targeted activists that a one-year ban would take effect immediately.
What were the grounds cited to justify this measure? The banned Londoners were accused of “participating in a prohibited activity,” namely, an “unauthorized protest.”
Many members of the university community were shocked by this ban. The idea that the campus police would be used not to protect public safety, but to target community organizers for punitive “bans,” imposed without any due process, was a source of dismay, and even shame. That campus police even had the power, never mind the audacity, to declare that peaceful public assemblies on campus were “prohibited” as “unauthorized protests,” violated our shared understanding of why universities exist.
Many staff, students and faculty have been quick to express their opposition. Petitions have been launched, professors have written letters to the Western News, and many messages of complaint have been written to university officials. World-renowned intellectual Cornel West publicly endorsed these efforts during a visit to the university.
And yet, it is not enough that members of the university community should oppose this attempt to use the campus police to target London’s community organizers. Everyone in London has a stake in this matter. The silencing of dissent and public protest in any part of this city is a threat to civic life in every part of this city. Attacks on the democratic expression of opinions anywhere, but especially on a university campus, are attacks on the democratic ideal itself.
It is past time for off-campus city residents to stand up to the bullying tactics used against these Londoners. Why has the mayor not spoken out against this injustice and called for the resignation of those responsible? Why has city council not publicly rebuked these heavy-handed measures? If these community leaders will not stand up for the rights of Londoners to engage in civic protest and democratic discussion, as they apparently will not, then it is up to the rest of us to do so. We cannot let this stand.
It is unfortunate that, as word spreads internationally about this injustice, the name of Western may be tarnished. We can only hope observers are able to see both sides: not only the attempt by university authorities to undermine the right of all to express dissent, but also the attempt by students, staff, faculty and city residents to rise up in defence of that right.
Stephen D’Arcy teaches philosophy at Huron University College.