University of Toronto is granted an injunction to dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment that has been on campus for two months

Pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Toronto, July 2, 2024 (Credit: Lila Sarick)

The University of Toronto has received an injunction to dismantle the pro-Palestinian encampment on its property.

The 98-page decision from Justice Markus Koehnen of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice said that members of the encampment must take down the tents within 24 hours, by 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 3. Toronto Police will have the authority to arrest people who do not comply, the order states.

The encampment, which was started May 2, grew to include about 150 tents. It covered almost the entire grassy Front Campus on King’s College Circle, in the heart of the campus, and in front of Convocation Hall, where student graduation ceremonies were held last month.

As part of the injunction, the protesters are still permitted to demonstrate at all areas of the campus between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. But they are not permitted to camp, erect structures or block entrances to university property.

In an emailed statement, UofT president Meric Gertler said the school expects those in the encampment to abide by the court order and vacate before the court-imposed deadline. He also said a letter had been sent to Toronto Police Services requesting their assistance if the encampment is not cleared by the required time.

“The University welcomes vigorous debate and protest,” the statement continued. “Today’s court order returns Front Campus to the entire University community and prevents any one group from asserting control of a shared space at the University in order to promote a particular view and deprive others of the freedom to express opposing viewpoints.”

Justice Koehnen ruled in favour of UofT in large part because the encampment created “irreparable harm” for the university, primarily by restricting access to Front Campus.

“The encampment has taken away the University’s ability to control what occurs on Front Campus. The case law is clear that this type of loss of use amounts to irreparable harm,” he wrote. “In my view, the harm to the University is greater if the injunction is not granted than is the harm to the respondents if the injunction is granted.”

Justice Koehnen also said in his ruling that the university did not present compelling evidence that the encampment was either violent or antisemitic, and therefore he did not accept those characterizations of it.

In terms of violence, he acknowledged that “there have been incidents of hate speech and physical harassment of people, predominantly but not exclusively directed at people wearing kippahs or some other indicator of Jewish identity in the general vicinity of the encampment.”

However, he wrote, none of the named respondents or occupants of the encampment had been associated with any of the complaints. Therefore, he said it is important “not to engage in guilt by association and conflate violent actors with peaceful protesters, as controversial as some might find the protest.”

In terms of antisemitism, and specifically antisemitic language, Justice Koehnen found there is sufficient nuance surrounding all the allegedly antisemitic slogans used by the encampment that make it “improper to assume that [the slogans] are antisemitic.” 

While he is not “blind to the fact that certain individuals may use the expressions at issue with the intention of advocating violence or hatred,” he said there was no evidence to suggest “that any of the named respondents or encampment occupants were using these slogans or symbols with any intention of violence, antisemitism or hatred.”

Hillel Ontario, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, StandWithUs Canada, Allied Voices for Israel, and the Network of Engaged Canadian Academics were each granted intervenor status on the case. B’nai Brith Canada was also granted intervenor status and submitted arguments to the court.

In response to the news of the injunction, Rabbi Seth Goren, CEO of Hillel Ontario issued a statement on behalf of the group.

“We are relieved that the Ontario court has granted an injunction, eliminating any doubt that the University of Toronto may legally—and finally—remove the hateful and disruptive encampment from its campus,” the statement said. 

“In accordance with the court’s order, we call on the University administration, in conjunction with the City of Toronto, Toronto Police Service, and other relevant public entities, to dismantle the encampment at the imposed deadline and finally put an end to the hate that has been allowed to fester at King’s College Circle for nearly two months.”

“Antisemitism is millennia-old, and we know that a single injunction will not wipe this bigotry from campus or the world. As such, we continue to call on the UofT administration, Mayor Olivia Chow, and other civic leaders to make clear through their actions that conduct of this nature will not be tolerated and that antisemitism has no place on campus. Collectively, we will continue to fiercely advocate for the full inclusion and safety of our Jewish community at the University of Toronto and all campuses nationwide.” 

Dr. Steve Samuel, a board member of Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA) who graduated from UofT’s medical school, said that the actions of the protesters made their feelings clear.

“It is obvious that those who usurped private property were not interested in the rights of the rest of us, of the university students and faculty, of their rights to get an education and graduate without the massive inconvenience that this caused,” he said.

“This obviously affected many, many people, not just Jews. This is an illustration of the lack of consideration for other citizens’ rights, not just Jews. And it is consistent with blockage of public roads, and never mind physical attacks on Jewish institutions and on Jewish individuals. So this is something that should be of concern to Canadians at large.”

However, the judge’s ruling that the encampment did not foster antisemitism gave some cause for concern.

“We implore everyone to read the reasons for the judgement before patting each other on the back (Section C). Today’s judgment appears to establish a dangerous legal precedent that may give free reign to hate language and antisemitism on university campuses and beyond. Given the fact that hate against Jews is statistically highest on record and of any group, we are concerned by the dismissive nature of today’s judgment on the matter of antisemitism,” Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Abraham Global Peace Initiative said in an emailed statement.

At a press conference held at the encampment, about an hour after the court decision was released, students declined to say whether they would leave by the July 3 deadline. Protesters were going to engage in a “robust discussion” this evening to discuss their options, said student spokesperson Erin Mackey.

“We will continue until UofT ends its complicity in this genocide. This encampment is one tactic of many. We formed this coalition, we formed these groups and they will continue long after this,” Mackey said.

“People will have emotions and feelings about the fact that UofT is calling the police, police that are violent, on their own students. They should be appalled. I’m appalled.”

It seemed, however, that at least some students were preparing to leave the space. Shortly after the press conference concluded, protesters were seen taking down signs that were attached to the fencing surrounding the encampment.

Taking down signs at the pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Toronto after a court order, July 2, 2024. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

In an interview with The CJN, Mackey said that students will continue to fight for the university to divest from companies with ties to the Israeli military and to sever relations with Israeli academic institutions. 

“There are no more Governing Council meetings for the rest of the summer, so we’re gearing up and regrouping to figure out exactly how we’re going to move forward,” Mackey said.

“We’re not going anywhere. We may not be on the lawn but we will still be on campus and we will still continue to push and pressure this administration until UofT divests.”

Sima Atri, a lawyer with the Community Justice Collective who represented the encampment, said Justice Koehnen’s decision looked solely at the university’s property rights. She stressed that the decision did not find the encampment to be either antisemitic or violent.

“As we affirmed over and over in court, there was never any evidence that the university had to claim that (there was) violence or antisemitism or link it to the growing movement for Palestine on campus,” she said.

The decision also does not set a precedent for dismantling encampments at other universities, she said.

“This decision says nothing about the legality of other encampments. It is very specific to this specific encampment at UofT in this specific moment in time.

“The judge goes through what he calls a balancing of the interests of both parties. And he finds in this specific instance the university’s right to control and decide what is done on this land, which I would say how the university described itself (was) important, was to allow people to have breakfast and play football on this field,” Atri said at the news conference.

“The judge says that is more important than people’s ability to protest in this way on this land.” 

However, that characterization does not fully account for Justice Koehnen’s reasoning in his decision. According to Justice Koehnen, the way in which the encampment chose to protest seemed to undermine its professed values of freedom of expression.

“The protesters’ conduct is inconsistent with freedom of expression. At the end of the day, the only people who are allowed onto Front Campus are those who agree with (or at least who do not openly disagree with) the protesters’ beliefs. If the property truly is a quasi-public space, why should one ad hoc group of people get to determine who can use that space for a period of over 50 days?”

In contrast, the university’s preferred use of the space seemed to be better suited to offer the same freedoms to everyone.

“The University’s approach here is to make Front Campus available to everyone, including to those who just want to eat breakfast, while at the same time making the entire campus available to protesters provided they do not appropriate or block access to University property. This means all can do what they want to the maximum extent possible, provided it does not infringe on anyone else’s ability to do what they want,” he wrote. 

“People who want to eat breakfast can eat breakfast. People who [want] to protest can protest. This is consistent with the underlying foundation of liberal democracies: as much liberty as possible so long as one person’s liberty does not unreasonably infringe on the liberty of others.”

With files from Ellin Bessner.