Reading Between The Freely Spoken Lines: David Naylor Knows Which Side His Fatwa Is Buttered On

April 2008

When people feel strongly about something, they dig deep into their wallets (or someone's wallet) and publish open letters as full-page ads in the newspaper. Which is what University of Toronto president David Naylor did last week.

Prof. Naylor was responding to Avi Benlolo and Leo Adler's open letter from two days earlier. The two braves from Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (is the acronym FSWCHS, I wonder?) had dug deep into their wallets to voice their dismay over the University of Toronto hosting a series of events called "Israeli Apartheid Week."

Nothing wrong, of course, with putting one's money where one's mouth is. Full-page ads beat requests for "equal space," such as a group of Muslim law students demanded last year from Maclean's magazine -- feature us, kafirs, like you do Mark Steyn, or we sic the Human Rights Commission on you.

Open letters, in comparison, are a breath of fresh air.

"We understand that the University has an unflagging commitment to freedom of speech," write Messrs. Benlolo and Adler."However, we would hope that the University would never allow this principle to be hijacked by a blatantly racist event sponsored and conducted on its campus."

Hmm. There could be a bit of a problem with this. Sprinkle some magic dust on it, and the subtext reads: "Yeah, sure, the University has an unflagging commitment to freedom of speech, blah, blah, but why can't you flag a little when faced with abhorrent speech by anti-Semitic bullies?"

To which, in a fairy-tale version, Prof. Naylor would reply: "Because you can't, old shoe. Free speech means freedom for speech you abhor. Speech you adore requires no protection," and so on. Stuff worthy of John Stuart Mill.

In real life, Prof. Naylor prefers a disclaimer: "The University does not sponsor, organize or even implicitly endorse these events."

Oh? So U of T only provides a roof and a postal code for a blatantly racist event --because, you notice, Prof. Naylor takes no issue with Messrs. Benlolo and Adler's characterization of Israeli Apartheid Week as racist, anti-Semitic, whatever. It's just that U of T doesn't sponsor it.

Well, thank God for small mercies. OK. Does U of T feel obliged to provide a venue for all groups that demand one?

Prof. Naylor leaves that door open a crack."In every society," he writes, "universities have a unique role to provide a safe venue for highly charged discourse."

Great. Free inquiry, no taboos, academic freedom: I'm on board. But, wait? is Prof. Naylor on board?

Ah! Tricky."We work to help student organizers understand the difference between free speech and hate speech and monitor events very closely if there is any chance they will cross the line."

What line? Messrs. Benlolo and Adler seem to think Israel apartheid is way across the line. Is their GPS on the fritz?

What exactly is the difference between hate speech and free speech? Some may think Israel apartheid is hate speech. Hell, I might think Israel apartheid is hate speech -- not that I would deny it a forum. But could it be that free speech is hate speech U of T permits, and hate speech is free speech U of T prohibits?

Excerpts from the original Naylorese: "Year after year, events on our campuses have been far quieter than the storm surrounding them outside our community?

"Why does U of T's approach succeed? It succeeds because we have the resources to respond to complaints of racism promptly and thoroughly, and because our policies prioritize safety and are based in Canadian and Ontario law?

"Our approach also works because we do not, in fact, simply refuse controversial bookings." My translation:

"Political fashion is our middle name? We know which side our fatwa is buttered on? We know racism that's in demand, racism that's tolerated and racism that's anathema. U of T's approach succeeds because we're in touch with the times. We know who are likely to riot, and it isn't the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies? You're listening to the Voice of the U of T. Shalom. Salaam. Peace. Boycott Israel, and have a nice day."