The anatomy of misconception: deconstructing the debate over freedom at Concordia

In her editorial "Stifling free speech at Concordia,"Janet Bagnall has skillfully textualized several popular misconceptions concerning the state of intellectual freedom and activism at Concordia. By examining the inaccuracies and half-truths evident in this text, and hope to examine their ramifications in the public sphere. The cultural work of Bagnall's text is significant: as an editorial, it has power to influence the weltanschauung of its readers without having to adhere to many of the rules of journalism; and because it is largely an assembly of facile conclusions and half-truths it becomes an enemy of the very debate and expression that it tries to uphold. We hope to examine this text — from two sometimes divergent subjective viewpoints — and its veracity with a view to the larger text of life, if you will, that includes us all.

Stifling free speech at Concordia

by Janet Bagnall
Published in The Montreal Gazette on Friday, September 13, 2002

In a classic case of two wrongs not making a right, a second speaker at Concordia University was silenced last night. Norman Finkelstein, U.S. academic and author of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, had been invited by the Concordia Student Union to speak as part of the students' orientation festival. But because former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not speak as scheduled on Monday - he was advised not to try to get past a violent protest - Finkelstein's talk was ordered canceled by Concordia University's administration [1].

The administration's decision on Monday to impose an open-ended moratorium on anything to do with the Middle East is cowardly, short-sighted and counterproductive [2]. If free speech and debate cannot find a congenial [3] home in a university, where can they? The very air students breathe should be electric with ideas, opinion and analysis. Instead, we got bombast and a blanket condemnation of anyone who demonstrated in favour of Palestinians, without so much as a nod to the generally accepted tenet that non-violent protest is also a legitimate form of expression [4].

Nothing Stupid

Students have been criticized for inviting the two controversial speakers to Concordia, given its history of clashes over Middle East issues. But there was nothing stupid about inviting Netanyahu, the hawk who vows a "no-Palestinian-state-ever" policy, and Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors who supports the Palestinian cause, to speak the same week [5].

Polar opposites, the intellectual and ideological ground between them is huge. Think of the debate that could have taken place. Instead of racing in to protect freedom of speech, however, the university administration seems to have decided its true calling is determining the guilt of violent protesters through a careful study of taped videos [6].

Well, actually, that is the job of the police. Anyone who spat at or kicked the Montrealers who wanted to hear Netanyahu speak at the Henry F. Hall Building on Concordia's downtown campus should have been arrested and charged with assault [7]. They had no right to try to stop Netanyahu from speaking or to prevent anyone who wanted to hear him from attending the event.

Nor had they any right to break windows, throw chairs or do anything else that endangered people around them. If the university wants to ban from campus a student found guilty of criminal assault in the context of a campus action, that is a reasonable course of action.

What is not reasonable is to decide that there has to be a "cooling-off" period for anything to do with the Middle East. It is unlikely that people in either the Jewish or the Palestinian communities in Montreal will be any less intense on the subject of the Middle East two weeks or six months from now. The point should be to ensure that debate can take place without any physical acts of aggression [8].

Prevention requires preparation. Netanyahu has often required special precautions when he speaks on university campuses. Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999, and said to be interested in taking over the Likud party once again, Netanyahu espouses political views that are a lightning rod on North American campuses from Berkeley to Concordia [9].

Police Not Prepared

Why would authorities in Montreal not have been better prepared for the inevitable protesters [10]? In Toronto on Tuesday, police were able to contain a larger group of protesters when Netanyahu spoke at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts.

Would Finkelstein have attracted an equal number of protesters last night? We won't know. Certainly, he has angered a number of Jews with his 2000 book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. We can guess that university authorities would not have been any better prepared if their idea of heading off danger is to cancel everything in sight to do with the Middle East [11].

This was a week of missed opportunities. A university which should have fought for the right of two controversial figures to speak instead imposed amoratorium on debate [12]. Students who should have been able to see past the man, Netanyahu, to the issue, which was freedom of speech, instead opted for censorship [13]. For the most multi-ethnic university in our much-vaunted multicultural city, this was not our finest moment [14].

Janet Bagnall is a Gazette editorial writer. Her E-mail address is

article © Copyright 2002 Montreal Gazette
article © Copyright 2002 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest Global Communications Corp. All rights reserved.

  1. This implies a bit more than it proves.

    Was it because Netanyahu didn't speak, in a tit-for-tat fashion? Or because the atmosphere was such that the administration could expect a massive stink if they weren't percieved to be doing anything? Bagnall seems to imply the former, I think the latter is closer to home.

  2. Cowardly? No! It takes guts to do the right thing, knowing the reactions of quasi-liberals.

    Short-sighted and counterproductive, yes.

  3. Congenial? Never!

    Congenial is not a requirement for civilized debate. A little controlled animosity makes for a better argument!

  4. Bagnall has already called the protest "violent."

    I'd find it hard to classify Monday's protest/blockade/riot as non-violent.

  5. The proximity to September 11 and current reality of heated conflict should have set off some alarms. Freedom of debate, yes; but let's be sensible. There is room for both cats and dogs in this world - but not in the same pen.

    Considering Netanyahu an authority on much of anything seems to me to be the major mistake. Monday and Friday are many, many sound-bites apart, and barring a campus occupation, the protests for two events at either end of the week probably won't meet.

  6. Should the school not take action against vandals?

    If they didn't they'd be breaking the intent of the University's code of rights and responsibilities, sections 4 (jurisdiction), 5 (rights), 6 (responsibilty) 18 (threatening or violent conduct), 19 (offenses against property) and 52 (sanctions) — among other things. Every Concordia student puts themselves under that code by signing up for classes. The code sets out procedures, standards of proof, deadlines, sanctions and everything else necessary for due, agreed-upon process.

  7. Five were. Should the university not use whatever tools it has at its disposal to try to get a handle on the present situation?

    And if we had to arrest all criminals on the spot before their investigations, we'd need lots more police or we'd be in a state of anarchy. If we're lucky more alleged smashers of stuff and assaulters of would-be audience members will be called to account as video and witnesses point them out.

  8. And because some students have chosen to not allow this - they even managed the defeat the police - it has become impossible. No one is waiting for the debate to become "less intense." A violent symptom of the debate is being waited out, not the debate itself, and the school is attempting to handle a very tricky situation - a situation that has threatened safety at (and the reputation of) the institution.

    If all goes well, the violent protesters will be arrested and tried for their crimes and the authorities, seeing the results of their tactics this time, will prepare differently to protect the freedom of everybody, including crackpots like Netanyahu, to speak.

  9. So, good preparation was needed. And it was in place. Over fifty police cars. Riot police. Closed-off streets. Security zones...

    Judging from the extensive police presence and the number of police barricades keeping the area enclosed, I'd say they were trying.

  10. Time and time again we see police condemned for excessive use of force. When the protest reached a point where the only options were escalation or de-escalation (by removing the immediate impetus, in this case, Netanyahu), the police made the right choice. Toronto is beleaguered less by intolerant, extremist activism.

    Tuesday was after Monday and I imagine the police in Toronto were watching the news. Of course the Toronto police would have stepped up already-strong security plans having seen what happened with Montreal and Concordia's own concerted efforts.

  11. The University's "idea of heading off danger" has always been adequate preparation, short of infringing upon the rights of its students. In this case, the protesters used violence to render ineffective the usual (and usually adequate) response.

    I would sense that this moratorium was basically the only thing the university could do that would have an immediate effect. Considering that there were posters for the Netanyahu protest well in advance and nary an “unwelcome Finklestein” poster anywhere, it's safe to say there wouldn't be many violent crowds to head off his speech.

  12. The university did fight, and lost. They were defeated by hatred and violence, and had to make sacrifices to protect the safety of their students and restore the university's status as a place of learning.

    Bagnall is unfortunately right here. The university has let the protesters disrupt more than what they came to disrupt. The snarls over the moratorium will compound the loss of legitimate debate on Middle East issues to make the next little while bad for Concordia.
  13. This was a specific group, not all students. Next, Bagnall will be condemning all Concordia students for last year's student handbook (entitled "Uprising," English for "Intifada"), which said that the media was controlled by Jews.

    Apparently some (not all) students didn't see past Netanyahu to the free speech issue. Many of the rest were stuck (inside and out) waiting for their lectures and watching the mess unfold. The violent censors (lawyers: not all the alleged ones, just the guilty ones) will be convicted for their crimes if all goes well.
  14. Here, Bagnall seems to be condemning a lack of tolerance for the conflict, which is accurate, but also seems to be applying this condemnation to the actions of the administration. This is clearly a forced connection.

    It was the only mildly positive-looking moment the admin could create... but it might have been better to get negative on the rioters for a bit and let the rest of university life go on.

    Eric Hortop studies (mathematics, aesthetics and technology) and works (same) at Concordia University, and cobbles together in his spare time.
    Jake Morrissey is a part-time hack writer and a student of English Literature at Concordia University. He assembles out of plugs of fur shed by his domesticated squirrels.