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A few days after Hamas massacred hundreds of Israelis on Oct. 7, student unions at Toronto’s York University issued a truly appalling statement.

They began by reaffirming their “solidarity with the Palestinian people … and their ongoing fight against settler-colonialism, apartheid and genocide.” In a “strong act of resistance,” they continued, “the Palestinian people tore down and crossed the illegitimate border fence erected by the settler-colonial apartheid state of so-called Israel.” Of the children murdered, the families hunted down in their homes, the young people slaughtered at a music festival, and the old women dragged off as hostages, they said precisely nothing.

York promptly issued its own statement, condemning the unions for using such “inflammatory” and “abhorrent” words and calling on them to “reject any acts of violence or discrimination.” Fair enough. But then it went a step further. When the unions refused to retract or modify what they had said, it issued a second statement threatening them with sanctions.

The unions, it said, might have “breached their responsibilities under the Regulation Regarding Student Organizations, including failure to operate in an open, accessible, democratic, non-discriminatory manner, and failure to act in accordance with the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion.” Unless the unions retracted the statement and their leaders resigned, they would face a disciplinary hearing that could result in the university withdrawing its recognition, effectively shutting them down.

Many in the university community no doubt applauded. At last, York was standing up to the radical minority and its poisonous rants.

They should hold the ovation.

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The right to free speech means nothing unless it includes the right to be radical, outrageous, offensive, obnoxious, even despicable. Leaders of universities, always cockpits of debate and havens for dissent, should know that. By threatening to bring the hammer down on the unions, they are undermining the very core of their mission.

Who determines whether students have been behaving in a “democratic, non-discriminatory” manner, or whether they have upheld the hallowed values of diversity, equity and inclusion? Is York really proposing to put its wayward students on trial for their word crimes?

Words that seem abhorrent to some might seem heroic to others. It is not for a government or a university administration to decide what kind of speech is permissible.

Student unions, like the student press, are always nipping at the heels of university administrators, questioning their policies, decisions and intentions. It is something universities, like governments, must endure. A university might be justified in penalizing student politicians for embezzling student funds or fixing an election. It should never penalize them for something they say.

The right to speak out without fear of retribution is what separates free societies from closed ones. That is especially clear now, with tension rising between democratic and authoritarian states. Even in democracies, free speech is under attack, with the left at war with the right, and each side trying to silence the other.

The conflict in the Middle East has only heightened the risk. Freedom of expression is never in more danger than in times of war. Passions are running high. Awful untruths and terrible slurs are being thrown around at rallies and online. It is tempting to clamp down on expression to lower temperatures and ease injured feelings.

In that spirit, Ontario’s government has been warning universities to curb extreme speech. The minister who oversees Ontario’s colleges and universities told their presidents they should hold student groups accountable for what they say.

Governments have no business telling universities to police speech. Remember that not so long ago this same Progressive Conservative government, offended by cancel culture on campus, was telling university leaders to allow the “broadest possible latitude” for free expression.

Instead, York issues threats against its student unions. That is a dreadful mistake. To denounce or refute is one thing, to punish or muzzle another. The only proper response to the student unions and their vile statement is a familiar one: We may deplore what you say, but we will always defend your right to say it.

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