Swastika Tightrope

April 2004

For Noah Joseph, a Concordia University student deeply troubled by a rash of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, the answer's simple. It's time Concordia declared itself a "swastika-free zone."

For the university, straddling a tightrope between freedom of expression and a spate of corrosive hate propaganda, Joseph's proposal is a no-win situation. You could practically hear the thud of dread at yesterday's board of governors meeting, as administrators shunted his motion on to the back burner for committee review, desperate to make it go away without ever coming to a vote.

Why? Because to vote for Joseph's motion is to admit there's a problem, one which is not being tackled adequately by existing rules. Vote against it, and Concordia not only has the makings of a public relations firestorm, it opens the floodgates for every nutbar with a grudge and a Magic Marker.

Not that posses of white supremacists are roaming the corridors of the Hall building. As one student noted yesterday, the rare swastika he's seen etched on a bathroom stall could be expunged with a little elbow grease.

But Joseph, former president of Concordia's Hillel society and a member of the board, insists the university must take a decisive stand in the wake of a batch of anti-Semitic incidents.

In June, a student panel dismissed a harassment complaint against activist Laith Marouf when he scrawled a swastika on an Israeli flag during a clash between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students March 12. Marouf later claimed he had drawn "the Hindu circle of life, not the Nazi swastika," but said he knew some people would be deeply offended.

In the fall, five anti-Semitic pamphlets proclaimed a Zionist takeover, targeting Concordia officials who happen to be Jewish. Crude illustrations drew parallels between Concordia and a synagogue, Israel's security fence and the Nazi regime of Hitler's Third Reich; Concordia's crest was replaced by the Star of David. Inflammatory language accused Concordia of the "demonization of ethnic groups such as Germans and Arabs & the villification (sic) of White Protestant Males." Fliers also took swipes at Brian Mulroney, CanWest Global, Molson's and B'nai Brith. (A story I wrote was quoted as so-called evidence of "racial and social engineering" by McGill University's admissions office.)

Yesterday, Concordia rector Fred Lowy, branded in one pamphlet as "Chairman of the Concordia Kibbutz," said the university is caught between duelling principles: freedom of expression and openness to ideas, even loathsome ones, and the need to shield students, staff and the university's reputation from hateful slogans that go beyond the bounds of acceptable political speech. "We do not have a blanket restriction on use of the swastika," he said.

Several officials said Concordia already has policies to deal with hate crimes ─ as does Canada's Criminal Code. A university protocol bars displays that promote racism or stereotyping based on "race, colour, ethnic or national origin, sex, pregnancy, political convictions, language, social condition (or) handicap."

Joseph agreed to bring his motion before a committee reviewing the university's code of rights. Yet he admits he was thrown off by the "mood and response."

"I find it disappointing to think anyone would suggest the swastika was an acceptable symbol of political expression. Clearly, Germany doesn't think so."

Editor’s Note: Harvey Shulman, a member of SAFS Board of Directors, sent the preceding article to Erich Wasserman, Executive Director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) asking him if he would support the motion if he were on the Concordia Board of Governors. He received the following response.

Friday February 27, 2004

Dear Mr. Shulman,

Thank you for writing.

FIRE defends all students and faculty members on our nation's campuses who are the victims of overbroad or unlawful restrictions on expression and speech. FIRE does not differentiate between the messages propounded, unless those messages are actually prohibited by law, i.e. slander, libel, threats, obscenity, those restrictions falling under the heading of "time, place, and manner."

Notably, FIRE does not protect students who vandalize – defacing or otherwise tampering with public property is illegal. It appears that much of the conduct described in the article you sent could be properly addressed using statutes or regulations prohibiting such behavior, without even addressing the substance of the message. This being the case, what is the point of a speech code or attempts to quash expression?

Now, assuming that there exist peaceful political protests advocating this or that extreme message:

At almost every college and university, students are presented with long lists of offices to which they should submit charges of such verbal "harassment," with promises of "victim support," "confidentiality," and "understanding" when they file such complaints.

What an astonishing expectation to give to students: the belief that, if they belong to a protected category, they have the right to four years of never being offended. What an extraordinary power to give to administrators and tribunals: the prerogative to punish the free speech and expression of people to whom they choose to assign the guilt of historical oppression, while being free, themselves, to use whatever rhetoric they wish.

The essential purpose of a speech code is to repress speech. It serves other ends, of course, such as making its arbiters feel moral, powerful, or simply safe from the attacks of those who would criticize them. It also demonstrates, for all to observe, who controls the symbolic environment of a place ─ a heady feeling for the wielders of power, and a demonstration, of course, that also succeeds in silencing others.

John Stuart Mill said it best, in On Liberty (1859).

Everyone, Mill noted, claims to believe in freedom of expression, but everyone draws his or her own boundaries at the obviously worthless, dangerous, and wrong. Why should we tolerate speech that offends our sense of essential value, security, and truth? Mill answered four compelling grounds for doing so: 1) the opinion might be true and "to deny this is to assume our own infallibility;” 2) the opinion, though erroneous, might, indeed, most probably would "contain a portion of truth," and because "prevailing opinion" is rarely, if ever, "the whole truth," censorship denies us that possible "remainder of the truth" that only might be gained by "the collision of adverse opinions;” 3) even if prevailing opinion were the whole truth, if it were not permitted to be contested ─ indeed, if it were not, in actual fact, "vigorously and earnestly contested," it will be believed by most not because of "its rational grounds," but only "in the manner of prejudice;” and 4) if we were not obliged to defend our belief, it would stand "in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived on its vital effect on the character and conduct," becoming a formula repeated by rote, "inefficacious for good . . . and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, for reason or personal experience."

Mill also argued against using coercion to make sure that voices were "temperate" and "fair." As Mill noted, such "boundaries" are impossible to define, and surely would be drawn by all in a manner favorable to themselves. If one took the notion of "temperate" and "fair discussion" truly seriously, what ought to be banned would be arguments that stigmatized one's opponents "as bad and immoral men." Mill argued presciently, given what has happened on our campuses, that the denunciation of "invective, sarcasm . . . and the like . . . would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion." Ultimately, Mill concluded, it should be left to public opinion, not to "law and authority," to determine the dishonesty, malignity, or intolerance of someone's "mode of advocacy." In short, it was "imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve." Mill has much to say about the struggle for liberty on American campuses.

The ultimate intention of the "marketplace of ideas," and of any society in which expression is unfettered, is that those ideas with merit will be accepted, and those without merit will be cast away. These students raise issues and opinions that exist whether or not we choose to acknowledge them or decide upon their merit. It is a far more advantageous scenario to know that these opinions exist and understand the methods by which they are disseminated than try, in vain, to selectively marginalize these opinions and attempt to punish the speakers. Truth will prevail. I hope that I have addressed your concerns. Please feel free to call, write, or email ( with any residual concerns, and we always welcome new supporters (!


Erich Wasserman
Executive Director
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
210 West Washington Square Philadelphia, PA 19106.