On Campus

Lawyering up impedes progress

There are better ways to deal with an unresponsive administration than sit-ins, violence and lawsuits

(Editor’s note: This post has been updated below)

The legal action a group of University of Toronto protesters hinted at two years ago has been filed. In March 2008, about 35 students staged a sit-in at U of T’s administrative officers hoping to discuss a fee hike to a campus residence building with president David Naylor. Four hours into the protest, campus security was called to remove the protesters.

The students say the officers assaulted them as they were forcibly removed from campus, while a letter from Naylor a week after the incident said the students were removed because they “verbally harassed and attempted to impede staff moving in the halls.”

The students were barred from campus, and 14 of them were arrested and charged. In September 2009, all charges were either stayed or dropped. And now, two of the students who were arrested are suing the university, police, Naylor and other administrators, claiming that the university targeted them because they were student leaders even though they took no active part in the altercation with campus security.

The university is standing its ground, intending to contest the suit. In a written statement to the Globe and Mail, U of T explained their position:

“The University of Toronto, and its staff members who have been unfairly targeted by the plaintiffs, will be defending the claim vigorously. Remarkably, the claim goes so far as to sue the innocent victims who were confined in an office against their will in an incident inside Simcoe Hall in 2008. The university believes the claim to be entirely without merit, and it will be seeking to have it dismissed, with costs.”

While it seems the university’s actions did indeed go to far having students arrested rather than engaging in discussion is a bit of an overreaction — a judge has ruled as much (Update: The charges were stayed “on the grounds that the over 17 month time-period between their arrest and the scheduled trial date has been a breach of their Charter right to a trial within a reasonable time“) — protesters that use a big scene to make a point rarely get remembered for the point they are trying to make. Rather than engage in a constructive discussion with the university about an important student issue, this attempt to reverse a fee increase is now only remembered for the aggressive assaults and lawsuits that have embroiled it for the past two and a half years.

Stories like this only serve to make things more difficult the next time a student group tries to effect change. What administrator is going to engage in a meaningful conversation with concerned students if the memory of their predecessors is still so fresh? There has to be other ways to deal with an unresponsive administration than sit-ins, violence and lawsuits.

The goal of the student movement is constructive, which is to say that it builds on the work of those who came before. What this conflict achieved was not only a setback for that discussion, but also for the many that are yet to come.