HRTO rejects student discrimination complaint about Israeli Apartheid Week posters

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has rejected a complaint from some Carleton University students who claimed they were discriminated against when the school removed posters it circulated on campus to publicize Israeli Apartheid Week.

The events of the case in SAIA v. Carleton University took place in February 2009 when the Students Against Israeli Apartheid, a club at the school, tried to publicize Israeli Apartheid Week with about 100 posters around campus. The posters depicted an image of an Israeli helicopter gunship aiming a missile at a Palestinian child holding a teddy bear.

The school’s equity services department received several complaints including one brought forward by Hillel, a Jewish student group, regarding Jewish students who were feeling threatened by the posters.

At the same time Carleton’s administration was aware of recent events at York University where there had been large, heated demonstrations, including confrontations between the SAIA and Hillel groups, and situations requiring security and police to intervene.

The incident occurred at the same time similar activity was occurring at other Canadian universities related to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, in particular when Israel was engaged in a military offensive in Gaza with casualties and an attack on the Islamic University of Gaza.

University staff removed the posters and made a decision not to permit such postings on campus.

SAIA alleged the actions of the school were unjustified and discriminatory. It argued the poster was lawful and protected speech under s. 13(2) of the Human Rights Code and that by banning the poster, the university infringed its rights. The group argued the school was motivated by a preference for concerns expressed by Jewish students over the rights of Palestinian students.

SAIA also alleged that an e-mail from Carleton’s provost circulated to the entire university community unfairly targeted the group.

For its part Carleton argued its actions were a justified response to safety concerns and the actions were not related to the grounds of discrimination under the code.

“While the ability to engage in lawful political activity and free expression of political opinion are fundamental rights in Canadian society, and may be the subject of other laws or policies, they are not proscribed grounds of discrimination under the code. To the extent the applicant argues that, as a human rights advocacy organization, it was denied a right of free political expression, as legitimate as that claim may be, it is outside the scope of the tribunal’s jurisdiction,” tribunal adjudicator Michael Gottheil said in his decision.

He found the school had not violated the student group’s rights under the code and that the school’s president did not demonstrate an anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel bias.

In his decision Gottheil said: “SAIA called no evidence with respect to these allegations. Accordingly, I have not considered these allegations, except to note that there is no direct evidence before me of the respondent having an anti-Palestinian bias.”

“I am satisfied that the respondent had a good faith concern about student safety, and the possibility that the situation on campus might further deteriorate,” said Gottheil, noting that reported incidents to the equity services department warranted a response to the posters.

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