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U of T seeks court injunction to clear encampment as protesters stay put

Protesters at a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Toronto said Tuesday they will stay at the site despite threats of discipline from the school and a looming legal action.
People attend a rally outside Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus on Monday, May 27, 2024. The U of T says it's taking legal action in an effort to clear an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters from its downtown campus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Protesters at a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Toronto said Tuesday they will stay at the site despite threats of discipline from the school and a looming legal action.

Protesters reaffirmed their commitment to the encampment as the university seeks expedited court scheduling for its request for an injunction.

"Having been threatened by the university with academic sanctions, including suspension and expulsion, having been threatened with arrest and police violence — despite all of this, despite all these threats being made, we remain," said Erin Mackey, one of the encampment organizers.

"We've been clear from the very beginning that by virtue of being here, it does not warrant the University of Toronto calling the police on their own students," she added.

Deborah Cowen, a professor at the university who came to support the protesters, said she was "deeply, deeply disappointed" by the administration's decision to seek an injunction to dismantle the encampment.

"I'm outraged by our administration's actions," she said, pointing to what she called an "unprecedented" and "egregious" threat of mass termination and other forms of discipline.

"And that comes when we haven't seen a serious good faith effort at negotiation,” she said.

The University of Toronto is asking the courts to authorize police action to remove protesters who refuse orders to leave the encampment, which was set up on campus earlier this month.

The university has filed a notice of motion in court aimed at bringing about an end to the demonstration while saying the encampment was causing irreparable harm to the institution.

Among the relief sought, the university is asking for an order authorizing police to "arrest and remove persons, objects and structures" who violate the terms of a court order.

It is also seeking to prevent protesters from blocking access to university property or setting up fences, tents or other structures on campus.

The protesters have said they are prepared to fight back with their own legal team and refused to leave the site, ignoring a Monday morning deadline set in a trespass notice issued last week.

Richard Moon, a University of Windsor law professor whose areas of expertise include freedom of expression, said injunction requests before the courts have to be decided "on a kind of balance of probabilities," taking into account the interests and rights of both parties.

"On one side is: what are the harms to the university and the members of the university community ... that stem from this encampment and its continuation, and on the other side: what would the injury be to those engaging in the encampment – their speech interests – if the encampment was shut down?" he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Moon said that, in his view, U of T's court filing does not "clearly demonstrate" that antisemitic hate speech has been coming from the encampment itself, or that protesters are blocking entry to buildings or restricting other people's movements across the campus.

The university said in its court filing that it has received "many concerning reports" about violence, property damage and discriminatory speech "within and surrounding the encampment area."

It said areas around the encampment have had reports of confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters, as well as antisemitic slurs, among other things.

Moon said a recent court decision to grant Université du Québec à Montréal a partial injunction against pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment on that campus shows that such court orders can be limited and still allow people to protest.

A Quebec judge ruled Monday that safety measures such as removing obstructions and allowing the fire department to visit the camp to make sure it's safe need to be put in place, and that doing so won't infringe on the encampment members' right to protest.

"It is possible to issue an injunction that is limited in scope and addresses particular issues of that kind," Moon said. "It doesn't involve shutting down the entire encampment."

A court date to hear U of T's injunction request has yet to be set. A number of groups sought intervener status in the matter during a case conference on Tuesday, with the judge now set to consider those submissions.

Sohail Adish, a U of T student not involved in the protest, said he has mixed feelings on the encampment and on the university's response.

"I feel like they're in their right to protest as long as it's peaceful and the university is in their right to allow or disallow people on the campus," he said.

"As for students getting expelled, staff getting fired, I'd say, it really depends on what kind of actions they commit."

Adish said he had concerns for the safety of the encampment, particularly when it came to fire safety.

Similar encampments on university campuses have cropped up across Canada in recent months, with several schools considering or taking legal action against the protesters.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2024.

The Canadian Press