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Resist Those Who Put A Price On Academic And Artistic Freedom

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Is there a difference between putting pressure on government and on a non-governmental agency? And what, for these purposes, IS government? Should a university, which guarantees academic and artistic freedom, capitulate to pressure put on it by a generous donor? Should an activist organization make policy decisions based upon what may or may not appeal to funders? Should a political party?

I confess to being an avid watcher of the Danish TV series Borgen. In the most recent episode, the leader of a new political party has to decide whether to accept major funding from a bank magnate or to decline the funding because it comes with strings attached. The banker wants to help determine the party's financial policy.

With his funding, the leader can pay her workers and provide them with free coffee in the office. Without the funding, she will need to depend upon volunteers and people will have to buy their own coffee. I won't spoil the ending of the episode, but suffice it to say, the party leader shows some gumption.

York University has long been a place where intense, lively and heated debate about important issues takes place. It has been a focal point in Canada for demonstrations about conflicts in the Middle East. To say that the administration, faculty and student body have been divided over the Israeli-Palestinian debate is to seriously understate the case.

Two years ago, a wall poster was put on display in the York University student centre. At the bottom of the picture appear the words for peace and justice in multiple languages. In the foreground of the picture there is a figure of a person, shown from the back and likely a man, who is wearing a Palestinian scarf and holding rocks behind his back.

In the background there is a hilly landscape with a building, a tree and a piece of machinery with smoke coming from it. There are no other human figures in the picture, so it is a bit difficult to determine what is happening.

Paul Bronfman is incensed that this picture, which he refers to as anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic hate propaganda, is displayed at York University. He wrote an open letter to Mamdouh Shoukri, president of York University, demanding that the picture come down or he will withdraw significant funding for an important program that benefits students in York's cinema and media arts programs.

Mr. Bronfman is on the boards of a number of film-making operations, and he is also chairman and CEO of Comweb Corp and William F. White International, as well as the chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios.

Mr. Bronfman has been quoted as saying, "The upshot is that if that poster is not gone by the end of day today then William F. White is out of York. York is going to lose thousands of dollars of television production equipment used for emerging student filmmakers, access to technical people who do education and student training and student seminars, workshops and open houses at William F. White Center that help them develop the hard skills needed to fill industry infrastructure positions like gaffer or grip: they will no longer be invited. York University will be persona non grata at William F. White international until they take that poster down."

Mr. Bronfman has every right to make his demand and every right to donate or to withdraw funding. But should he? And should York University accept funding that is contingent upon agreeing to remove a controversial piece of art?

Academic and artistic freedom are at the very heart of university existence. Without the ability to explore and express ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, universities would become mills that deliver pre-approved doses of information in community sanctioned packets. Such institutions would challenge no one to think critically, nor to rise up against injustice. I do not imagine that this is the kind of institution Mr. Bronfman and the film companies he represents would support.

I have no idea whether president Shoukri likes or dislikes the poster, whether he approves or disapproves of its message -- nor do I really care. I do hope, however, that he and his colleagues can stand up to Mr. Bronfman's challenge.

If our universities do not demand independence from partisan influence -- whatever its source, however well-intentioned -- we are all of us in trouble. As my late colleague A. Alan Borovoy often said, "The freedom of no one is safe unless the freedom of everyone is safe."

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