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March 17, 2010

Violation of students' rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association

Scott Stockdale

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The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) sent a letter to Toronto District School Board (TDSP) asking the board to repeal its ban on Israeli Apartheid Week activities on school property.

On the TDSB website, its Director of Education, Chris Spencer, has posted a statement that reads, in part:

``The event called “Israeli Apartheid Week” has the effect of fostering ill-will and disharmony among groups and individuals. The Government of Ontario and the opposition parties have unanimously adopted a resolution condemning “Israeli Apartheid Week”.  The Toronto District School Board therefore affirms that “Israeli Apartheid Week” and its activities are not permitted to take place on school or board property ...”

In the letter, The CCLA urged the TDSB to carefully consider the implications its decision has on the students' rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

“Student's rights to express their opinions and associate with others to advance causes are fully protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Political expression goes to the core of Charter Protections, and any restrictions - particularly ones base on the content of such expression – must be fully justified and carefully tailored.  A blanket ban such as that imposed by the Director of Education cannot meet this standard.”

The CCLA added that although students may voice opinions and advance causes that the school board finds inappropriate, from a variety of perspectives, barring exceptional circumstances, questioning, studying and teaching are the ways to respond.

“Teachers may also choose to use controversial topics students are already engaged with as teachable moments to foster critical thinking, debate and discussion. Forbidding all elements of “Israeli Apartheid Week” from all school activities prevents teachers from sensitively addressing important topics and viewpoints that may already be present in the classroom.”

The CCLA told the school board that a blanket ban on a student discourse or movement is an unjustifiable violation of Charter rights and an unhelpful response to a controversial subject.

While stating that it (CCLA) would not object to the TDSB drafting a resolution expressing disapproval of what it judged to be an unconstructive dialogue, which is what the Ontario Legislature did on February 25, 2010 when it adopted a resolution stating that “in the opinion of this House, the term “Israeli Apartheid Week” is condemned.

The CCLA concluded that ``Unfortunately, TDSB has moved from moral suasion to censorship. For a government institution such a shift is unacceptable, `` the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said.

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