Chris Adams, September 4, 2014 —
A student club has questioned the University of Calgary’s dedication to free speech after a speaking forum they hoped to host on campus was denied a space on campus.
Campus Security conducted a risk-assessment of the Calgary Gaza Public Forum, to be hosted by student club Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) that found the risk of hosting the event on campus would be too great. SPHR hoped to host the event in Craigie Hall room 119.
Administration used three points as justification for their decision: SPHR’s involvement in a July 18 protest that turned violent, potential conflict with Orientation Week and the heated climate surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict.
After meeting with provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall and Campus Security, SPHR president Ala’a Hamdan said the club doesn’t understand why administration would deny them access to Craigie Hall.
“It seems counterintuitive to me. If something has affected all of us, then we need to be working on getting together to talk about it. It’s very counterintuitive that the university would stop events like this when there’s such a desire and a need for them,” Hamdan said.
Director of Campus Security Brian Sembo said they have been discussing safety issues about potential SPHR events on campus since July.
“We do encourage open dialogue and free speech. But the timing was very poor. Because it’s non-academic, there is a policy that says we have to protect our staff, students, faculty and infrastructure. Arguably, this was a risky situation,” Sembo said.
Students’ Union president Jarett Henry attended the meeting between SPHR and the provost. He said administration didn’t offer many clear answers.
“The few instances they did give us for their risk assessment was the July 18 event and the violence that happened at the protest. And then they referenced the general temperature of the debate around the conflict,” Henry said. “They were worried that it’s essentially too hot, in their opinion.”
A protest against Israel’s invasion of Gaza — organized in part by SPHR -— was held July 18. A counter-protester carrying an Israeli flag was attacked by a group of demonstrators. Four men have been charged since the protest, none of them members of SPHR.
The violence broke out 15 minutes after the protest began. SPHR informed Calgary police about the protest, though police didn’t show up until after the outbreak of violence. SPHR made an apology the next morning.
Henry said that SPHR has a spotless record with both the SU and administration.
“It’s important to note that Campus Security does have the authority on campus to make decisions around security, and we respect that,” Henry said. “We think that both personal safety and the safety to express different opinions are foundations of university.”
The event — which will now be held off-campus — is scheduled for 7–9 p.m. when most Campus Security officers will be at McMahon Stadium for Kick-Off.
Administration said they would look at reversing the rejection if SPHR considered hosting the event at a later date.
Hamdan said hosting events during troubled times gives people a place to clarify their confusion.
“We really don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to have a discussion. When the environment is heated, people are looking for a place to come and learn more about what they can do to help the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Hamdan said.