Canadian heads to be held to account

October 27, 2006

Supreme Court rules in favour of student in row over arbitrary suspension by York, reports Philip Fine.

Canadian university heads may be held accountable for their actions as elected officials after a Supreme Court ruled in favour of a student who claimed that he had been arbitrarily suspended.

The court refused to strike down a lower tribunal's decision that defined a university president as a public officer.

York University in Toronto appealed to the Supreme Court after the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that student activist Daniel Freeman-Maloy could go ahead with a civil suit contending that York president Lorna Marsden misused her office. It declared he could bring a civil action for "misfeasance in public office".

In 2004, Dr Marsden suspended Mr Freeman-Maloy for three years, without a tribunal appearance or an opportunity to appeal, for taking part in two unauthorised protests. Mr Freeman-Maloy was eventually allowed to return to classes in September that year after a court rescinded the suspension.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, the university said that to define a president as a public officer put academic freedom at stake. It pledged to fight against universities becoming "a branch of Government".

But the Canadian Association of University Teachers applauded the decision, saying that presidents and principals should not be immune from being held publicly accountable.

The protests centred around the activities of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, which handed out pamphlets at a campus event hosted by a Zionist group to support the Israeli Defence Forces.

A second demonstration featured mock checkpoints around the campus to dramatise Palestinian hardships.

A couple of weeks after she suspended Mr Freeman-Maloy, Dr Marsden defended her actions, saying that she had "authority over the conduct of students".

Mr Freeman-Maloy said those presidential powers were overarching and being exercised "to have a chilling effect on individual political expression and assembly on campus".

Peter Rosenthal, Mr Freeman-Malloy's lawyer who is also a maths professor at the University of Toronto, said that a tribunal should have been held before his client was suspended.

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