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U of T seeking injunction to clear protest encampment from downtown campus

A pro-Palestinian protester listens to a speech at a rally outside Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus on Monday, May 27, 2024. The University of Toronto says it's taking legal action in an effort to clear an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters from its downtown campus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Nearly a month after pro-Palestinian protesters set up an encampment at the University of Toronto, the school turned to the courts Monday in an effort to clear the demonstration, arguing it was causing irreparable harm to the institution.

In legal documents, the school asked the courts to authorize police action to remove protesters who refused orders to leave, while also arguing it was not interfering with students' ability to engage in respectful discussion and debate.

The protesters, meanwhile, said they were prepared to fight back with their own legal team and refused to leave the site, ignoring a deadline set in a trespass notice issued last week.

U of T president Meric Gertler said the school was asking a court for an expedited case conference while also continuing to negotiate with protesters.

"In addition to pursuing this legal avenue to return King’s College Circle to the university community, we continue to engage in discussions with students representing those in the encampment," he wrote in a statement.

"We remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement and bring the unauthorized encampment to an end."

The university filed a notice of motion in court aimed at bringing about an end to the encampment.

Among the relief sought, the university asked for an order authorizing police to "arrest and remove persons, objects and structures" who violate the terms of a court order. It also sought to prevent protesters from blocking access to university property or setting up fences, tents or other structures on campus.

The university argued the encampment has resulted in part of its campus not being available to other members to the school's community or the public.

"The encampment raises serious health and safety concerns for the occupants, other members of the university community, and the public," lawyers for the university wrote in legal documents.

"The University of Toronto has attempted to bring an end to the encampment through negotiations with the leadership of the occupants, but those negotiations have been unsuccessful."

University officials had issued a trespass notice on Friday ordering demonstrators to remove the encampment by 8 a.m. Monday.

The protesters, who set up tents in a large green space at the heart of the university's downtown campus on May 2, were joined by faculty and labour groups for a rally outside the nearby Convocation Hall as the trespass deadline passed.

Demonstrators held up flags and huddled under umbrellas as a drizzle turned to heavier rain during the rally.

Sara Rasikh, an encampment spokesperson, told the crowd that protesters tried for months to get the university to listen to their demands, but only received acknowledgment after setting up the encampment.

"The reason for this is because the people's strength is threatening to them. It is threatening to the legitimacy of this institution," she said.

"U of T continues to propose committees but we want commitments. We want divestment. We want disclosure. And we want it now."

Rasikh had said earlier that the encampment had its own team of lawyers prepared to respond to an application from the university for an injunction.

Natalie Rothman, a history professor at the university and a member of the Jewish Faculty Network, said she was "outraged" when the school issued the trespass notice.

"This is a peaceful protest. We've been here from day one, it's been nothing but a model of what the university should be like in terms of real learning, real solidarity, real community," Rothman said at Monday's rally.

"The fact that the university would threaten students and staff and faculty with disciplinary actions for a peaceful protest in accordance with our Charter rights, with the university's own mission statement, is absolutely outrageous."

U of T argued in legal documents that "nothing in the relief sought by the university interferes with the ability of the occupants to express their opinions and to engage in respectful discussion and debate."

It also said it had received many "concerning reports" since the encampment was set up.

"The university has suffered and continues to suffer irreparable harm, " it wrote in court documents.

"The encampment has associated the university with the conduct of the occupants in that the university's inability to control the violence, harassment, harmful and discriminatory speech, and property damage occurring ... have undermined the university's reputation as a free and open atmosphere for respectful discussion and debate and as a safe place for higher education."

Demonstrators and university administrators had met Sunday, during which protesters presented what they described as a counter-offer calling on the school to disclose public investments in companies profiting from Israel's offensive in Gaza.

They also asked the school to establish and let them be part of a joint working group examining private investments, as well as cut ties with two specific Israeli academic institutions.

On Thursday last week, the university had made an offer – with 24 hours to respond – that said the school would form a working group to consider options for the disclosure of the school's investments, but it would not end any partnerships with Israeli universities.

On divestment, the university said it would strike an advisory committee to review the students' request under existing school policies.

Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop said Monday she supported clearing the encampment at the University of Toronto.

"We want to ensure this is cleaned up and dealt with right away," Dunlop said. "Convocation is coming up and this is a safety issue. We want to ensure that families feel safe going on campus and not intimidated to attend the services."

Other universities have also taken legal action to end pro-Palestinian protest encampments that have cropped up on their campuses.

On Monday, a Quebec court granted the Université du Québec à Montréal a partial injunction against protesters who set up an encampment on its downtown campus earlier this month.

Superior Court Justice Louis J. Gouin ruled safety measures need to be put in place at the site, including prohibiting protesters from setting up tents and other material within two metres of campus buildings and ensuring doors, windows and walls are clear of obstructions.

The judge said the measures won't infringe on the encampment members' right to protest.

Separately, two judges denied provisional injunction requests to dismantle an encampment set up in late April at McGill University. McGill is now seeking an interlocutory injunction, which focuses less on urgency and more on legal rights at the heart of the dispute.

Meanwhile, protesters at McMaster University in Hamilton decided to put an end to their encampment after reaching a deal with the university last week.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2024.

Rianna Lim and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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