Ontario's Chief Justice said yesterday that violent protests at university campuses, such as the one by Palestinian supporters at Concordia University in September, are "a severe interference with the rights and dignity of many students."
"A university campus should be able to be enjoyed by students without being subjected to what can be a form of harassment," said Mr. Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, one of the speakers yesterday afternoon at a conference on anti-Semitism organized by the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies at Trinity College.
He suggested there should be rules to allow students to go about their lives with "some degree of comfort," but did not specify what those rules should be, other than to propose a kind of Speaker's Corner for those who wish to "rant and rave." The Concordia riot in Montreal led to the cancellation of a talk by Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister.
Chief Justice McMurtry is a former attorney-general and solicitor-general of Ontario who played a major role in the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 and the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights. He delivered his remarks near the end of the two-day conference, at a panel on the law and anti-Semitism.
"I believe anti-Semitism to be one of the most vicious diseases ever visited upon the human race. I also believe very strongly that the state has a vital role in combating the dissemination of hatred," Chief Justice McMurtry said. "For me, the issues of anti-Semitism and racism are very much linked and represent an almost seamless web of evil."
He said that during the 10 years he was attorney-general and as solicitor-general, he urged law enforcement bodies to target the activities of racist groups such as the Western Guard, which was an Ontario version of the Ku Klux Klan
"It is my view that elected officials do have the right and the responsibility to urge police departments to prioritize certain investigations when the public interest will clearly be served. While many hate crimes fall short of physical violence, they are, nonetheless, equally destructive of our social fabric," he said.
Fellow panelist Ed Morgan, a law professor at the University of Toronto and chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress (Ontario region), spoke in favour of some constraints on free speech in order to protect people against anti-Semitism or racism, an opinion that was not shared by all.
Michael Marrus, dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, applauded the recent actions of York University, which hosted a speech by Daniel Pipes, a staunchly pro-Israel scholar, after he was barred from speaking at a student-run venue in December. Mr. Marrus said he did not think the university had an obligation to "insulate" students. He said his answer to such complaints is "push back with speech."
Earlier in the day, Hershell Ezrin, chairman and chief executive officer of GPC International, a public affairs and communications firm conducting a study on Canadian values, said preliminary results reveal a majority of respondents across Canada say the conflict in the Middle East is negatively affecting how they view Jews in Canada. He said initial data also shows that people feel uncomfortable with the immense demographic changes that are taking place around them.
"In some focus groups, people say, 'We're not allowed to celebrate Christmas any more, we're not allowed to have prayer in schools any more because of people's sensitivities,' " Mr. Ezrin said.
The results of the poll will not be available for another two months.