October 25, 2004
Dear Dr. Seligman:
I am writing in response to your letter of October 12.
Let me first apologize for the delay in responding. You will appreciate that we have been busy dealing with this situation and other Concordia matters.
As you correctly stated, the dominant issue for some of the media and many academics who have written to us is concern for freedom of expression at Concordia University. Let me assure you that freedom of expression is not at risk at Concordia. We continue to have a vibrant, diverse and open campus.
We have many visiting speakers, including controversial speakers, who address a variety of contentious issues on campus, including various perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, since the violent protests that prevented Mr. Netanyahu from speaking at Concordia in September 2002, we set up a formal Risk Assessment Committee to examine every proposed event at the University. Their mandate is not to censor the topic or the speaker. Their only mandate is to assess the impact of the proposed event upon the university, its academic programs and our students, professors and staff, irrespective of the politics of the situation or who are the proposed sponsors.
With respect to the proposed speech by Mr. Barak, we concluded that our existing facilities could not accommodate the event safely if there should again be a violent protest. This conclusion was reached after evaluating the advice of local and national police authorities. We then immediately offered to co-sponsor the event with Hillel at a suitable off campus site approved by the police. When Hillel declined to participate in an off campus event we invited Mr. Barak to speak under Concordia auspices and at the University’s expense at Montreal’s Place des Arts. This is where our convocations are regularly held.
Clearly, a Concordia graduation at the Place des Arts remains a Concordia event. The same would be true of a Concordia sponsored speech by Mr. Barak at the same site. (It is of interest that recently a McGill University event involving a controversial speaker, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi was held off campus. I am not aware of anyone expressing concern about academic freedom at McGill as a result.)
Those who accuse Concordia of barring Mr. Barak, or caving in to bullies or violating free speech are well off the mark and, perhaps unwittingly, are demonizing Concordia and perpetuating the false image of an intolerant campus in discord. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We regret that Mr. Barak refused the invitation to speak at the Place des Arts. Had he accepted, or had Hillel agreed to co-sponsor the speech with the University, Mr. Barak’s views would have been heard by all those interested. It is the unwillingness to consider Concordia’s legitimate security concerns that has threatened free speech.
It may be of interest to you that we are examining with the help of security experts, what alterations to our campus would be required to permit high level statesmen to speak safely here.
For your interest I attach copies of a column by Henry Aubin in the Montreal Gazette and an article we submitted to the Toronto Star that further explains our position.
Frederick H. Lowy, MD, OC, LLD
President and Vice-Chancellor, Concordia University
cc: A. Benedetti ; M. Di Grappa ; D. Frost; D. Murphy; M. Singer; H. Shulman.