A group of University of Toronto students and staff are barred from campus for their role in a sit-in protest that occurred on campus in late March. 14 protesters, all of whom either study or work at U of T, are also not allowed to speak to one another, according to bail conditions handed down late last week.
The protesters are facing criminal charges stemming from a March 21 protest that turned ugly. University of Toronto president David Naylor wrote an open letter to his university, saying that the protesters “verbally harassed and attempted to impede staff moving in the halls,” in a statement released after the incident. The protesters claimed that they were the victims of police brutality after being forcibly removed from the building.
Some students involved in the protest may face academic sanctions under the Code of Student Conduct from complaints lodged by university staff.
One protestor, Oriel Varga, received lesser bail conditions after she refused to sign the original conditions and spent the night of April 25 in jail. In a media statement, Varga’s lawyer Selwyn Pieters said that the bail proceedings were an intimidation tactic.
The Canadian Federation of Students, Canada’s largest student lobby group, called on Naylor to drop charges and academic sanctions against students. “The charges laid against campus activists are nothing short of a politically-motivated attempt to stifle opposition to the university administration’s campaign for unregulated tuition fee increases,” said Jen Hassum, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. “Laying charges and academic penalties in an effort to shut down political dissent is a clear attack on freedom of speech and democratic rights on campus.”
Naylor’s March statement suggested that the university would hand over evidence to police so that they could determine whether to press charges, but university officials noted that the decision to lay charges, or to drop them, is a matter for the police and the Crown. “Contrary to some reports, the University has not laid charges against the protesters, and as a result does not have authority on the disposition of these charges,” vice-president and provost Vivek Goel said in a statement.
Goel’s statement reiterated Naylor’s message that the University of Toronto “holds as its central tenets freedom of expression, freedom of speech and the right to assemble freely,” and also denied that the protesters were forcibly removed. “At no time were the protesters forced to leave the site – they left on their own volition some time later.”
The Committee for a Just Education, a campus group in support of the protesters, released their own statement Tuesday. “I am urging the university administration to exercise restraint in these matters and avoid what appears to be a crackdown on political activity and freedom of expression at the university,” stated George Sefa Dei, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto.
The Committee’s statement included three demands: “i) Equal access to education through the elimination of all fees; ii) That the U of T administration and Toronto Police immediately drop all proceedings against students and organizers and stop the policing of dissent on campus; iii) Student, worker, and faculty parity on University decision-making bodies, including the Governing Council.”
About 35 students were at the March rally to protest what they said was a 20 per cent hike at one of the campus residences. By the time the later sit-in began, the majority of protesters were not students opposed to the residence fee hike, but activists speaking out against many issues ranging from Afghanistan to the commercialization of campus. They hoped to present university president David Naylor with a petition and speak with him or his advisers about the rising cost of education but Naylor was not on campus that day.
U of T spokesperson Rob Steiner said at the time that the “small but loud” protest included demonstrators who tried to trip staff as they left the building, shouted at security and in one case even bit an officer. Naylor’s statement accused demonstrators of uttering threats and assaulting officers.
Protesters denied the accusations and initially pointed to a YouTube video they posted online to prove their allegations of police brutality. The video does not display violence that could be considered police brutality.