Debating War and Peace: Protest vs. Coercion

In Canada and elsewhere, the spread of pro-Palestinian encampments has triggered a vigorous debate about the limits of permissible protest.

By: /
28 June, 2024
Pro-Palestine encampments have become a common sight on US campuses, and have now spread to Canada including the one above at the University of Victoria.  Photo: Open Canada.
Jack Cunningham
By: Jack Cunningham
Program Coordinator, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History

Precisely because they are also matters of life and death, debates about matters of war and peace quickly become charged and acrimonious. In Canada the question of whether to take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the protracted military engagement in Afghanistan produced some vigorous debate and even the occasional protest march, but not the encampments, blockades, and occupations protesting Israeli actions in Gaza that have been a common sight on US campuses for months, and have now spread to Canada.

The responses of university administrations have varied. McGill has sought successive injunctions for the removal of the encampment on its grounds, and at both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta local police were called in and successfully cleared encampments. 

At the University of Toronto, where I teach at Trinity College, after successive inconclusive exchanges the University applied for an injunction to clear the encampments. This was  heard on June 19th and 20th in the Ontario Superior Court.

Predictably, the spread of encampments has triggered debate about the limits of permissible protest, much of it turning on disputes over the facts. Critics of the protesters point to instances of hate speech, intimidation, and vandalism, while the protesters and their defenders argue that these have not occurred, been misrepresented, or that responsibility rests with third parties. Critics claim outside agitators are funding and organizing the encampments, defenders deny it. 

Too often the debate over the facts distracts us from considering with clarity where the line between permissible and impermissible protest lies. Even if we stick to the facts that are beyond dispute, there are reasons for thinking most of the protests exceed the limits of free speech, and we find evidence of this in their own rhetoric.

Typical is the statement by Summaya Kheiriddine, president of Integrity Not Spite Against Falastin (INSAF), one of the organizations behind the pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Ottawa, who claimed that previous and more limited protests had not produced the desired results of forcing the University to divest from companies that have ties to Israel and cutting its ties with Israeli academic institutions. “The people were upset and they wanted to be heard”, she said, “and the decision was we’re escalating and if that’s what it’s going to take, that’s what it’s going to take.” Escalating brought with it the encampment and protests during university convocation ceremonies this month.

But to claim a right to be heard, to insist that your speech be “effective”, is not simply to assert a right of your own. It is to claim an obligation on the part of others to listen to you, to give you a seat at the table where decisions are made, even to let your point of view prevail. Protesters should understand that others have as much right to ignore what you say as you have to say it, and the right to speak your mind does not entitle you to a captive audience. 

To make protests incrementally more disruptive until you get your way is hardly civil discourse of the sort that defines academe. It is an exercise in coercion, where the threat, or the reality, of disruption is employed to intimidate others into negotiation and ultimately concessions. It is to seek through the perceived strength of numbers what cannot be gained through the strength of argument. Sometimes, regrettably, such extortion works. At the University of Toronto, administration officials unwisely entered into negotiations with protesters and offered significant concessions, including the creation of two chairs in Palestinian studies and perhaps an entire institute. In addition, they offered to discuss disclosure of investments connected to Israel and possibly divestment. They rejected the protesters’ remaining demand, the severance of ties with Israeli post-secondary institutions, as infringing academic freedom. The protesters then responded that they would remain until their demands were met in their entirety.

At Columbia University, where protesters occupied and vandalized an administration building, the historian Mark Mazower wrote of the students “the one thing they have not been in these days is violent.” Even if you accept Mazower’s description, which ignores plausible allegations of vandalism and intimidation, protest is not legitimate merely by stopping short of overt violence. 

Freedom of speech entitles you to say pretty much whatever you wish in an op-ed, letter to the editor, blog post, petition, or handbill, because these do not infringe on anyone else’s rights. But encampments, occupations, and blockades blur the line between non-violent and violent protest by making it impossible for others to exercise their legitimate rights without the modest application of force. In such cases the protesters have provoked and invited that force, and bear the responsibility for it, though when it is applied they claim that they are the ones under attack.

For example, some weeks ago the Dean of Berkeley Law School, Erwin Chemerinsky, and his wife, Professor Catherine Fisk, held a backyard reception for students, one of whom stood up, pulled out a cordless microphone, and began an oration demanding Berkeley relinquish investments in Israel. After the student had been politely asked to leave and refused, Fisk put an arm around her and reached for the microphone. Following what looks like a very mild tussle, the student claimed she had been assaulted. Of course, her supporters had their cameras ready no doubt in expectation of a likely confrontation that could be, and subsequently was used to further their agenda. 

In the recording, Fisk appears to have resorted to no more than the reasonable degree of force one may legally employ when ejecting a misbehaving guest. Surely employment of reasonable force is also defensible by those seeking to enjoy their legitimate rights of movement or of access in the face of protesters, or by authorities acting on their behalf.

An appropriate response to the encampments at the University of Toronto and elsewhere would reject negotiation or concession under duress, and insist that those who claim to want legitimate debate accept its constraints. Those who resort to ill-disguised extortion should be seen as having forfeited the right to be considered parties to legitimate debate. There is at least one helpful precedent to consider. 

Edward Levi, later Gerald Ford’s Attorney General, was President of the University of Chicago at the height of the Vietnam War and in early 1969 had to contend with a fifteen-day occupation of an administration building. Levi flatly refused to engage in discussion with the protesters while they occupied university property, and when they did not get their objective they withdrew. In the aftermath, University disciplinary committees conducted individual hearings for every student involved in the occupation. Forty-two were expelled, eighty-one suspended and three placed on probation. Levi, and the University administration, understood that yielding to coercion is not only the opposite of debate in good faith, but it simply invites more extortion. The current crop of academic administrators could learn from this example, and the current crop of protesters should outgrow not only their inflated conception of their own rights but their disturbing indifference to those of others.

Jack Cunningham is Program Coordinator at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, at Trinity College and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, in the University of Toronto. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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