IN-DEPTH
York faces $10 million defamation claim: Professor's complaint stems from press release condemning controversial material
February 22, 2005

TORONTO -- While York University and its faculty union won't discuss the status of his complaint, a professor demanding $10 million in damages and an apology from the university for alleged defamation says he's confident he'll win if it goes to arbitration.

Social science professor David Noble maintains the university damaged his reputation, discriminated against him and violated his academic freedom when it issued a press release Nov. 19, 2004, condemning material he distributed at a campus event a day earlier as "targeting Jewish members of the York community."

"By assassinating my character, I assume they hoped to silence me," said Noble, who is Jewish.

The York University Faculty Association agrees with the professor and is formally supporting his grievance, which also calls for the university to send out a second press release acknowledging the first one was in error and a breach of the union's contract with the administration.

The press release appeared to bring the university and its fundraising organization, the York University Foundation, together with student groups Hillel and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) to denounce the material, of which Noble distributed several copies at an SPHR film night.

But the pro-Palestinian group issued its own press release disowning its participation in the university's statement several days later.

Noble's two-page document suggested the university's recent decisions to crackdown on pro-Palestinian activists and bring the Toronto Argonauts' football stadium on campus may have been influenced by the political views and business interests of some of the foundation's board members.

The document linked several board members to Israeli fundraising organizations, alleging the foundation is "biased by the presence and influence of staunch pro-Israel lobbyists, activists and fundraising agencies."

"It identifies the directors of the York University Foundation and some of the organizations to which they are affiliated, and the identification of various organizations that raise money for and lobby for Israel," Noble said.

"That's it," the professor added. "So, there's absolutely zero ethnic identification."

Within 24 hours of the document's distribution on campus, the administration issued its press release. The next day, there was an article in the Globe and Mail; coverage in the Toronto Star followed the day after.

In the release, the president of the university, Lorna Marsden, referred to the document as "highly offensive material, which singles out certain members of the York community on the basis of their ethnicity and alleged political views."

According to Noble, despite the union's insistence it be taken down, the release is still available on the university's website.

"To be clear, the university did not allege anti-Semitism nor did we name the individual," said Nancy White, York's director of media relations. "However, it is our view that this kind of material diminishes our sense of community in a university environment."

White disputed the allegations in Noble's document.

"We don't take positions on foreign policy matters," she said.

In SPHR's press release Nov. 24, the group claimed the administration asked two of its spokespersons to condemn material they hadn't seen. Noble's document was appended to that statement, which slammed "continuing and dangerous attempts to conflate opposition to Zionism and Israeli policies with unqualified anti-Semitism."

Furat Al Yassin, who was quoted as SPHR president in the university's release, was out of the country and unavailable for comment, according to Shadi Hajjara, the group's Toronto regional co-ordinator, who said he supports Noble's $10 million grievance.

But White contended SPHR's claim it was tricked into joining the university's statement was dishonest.

"It's false," she said. "How could they possibly endorse something without knowing the facts?"

While York's press release didn't name Noble or explicitly call his document anti-Semitic, a release issued by the Canadian Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto did.

The CJC also stands by its statement, said Len Rudner, acting national director of community relations.

But asked if the Jewish campus group still backs its statement in York's press release, the executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto, whose contact information was attached to that release and who was quoted in the CJC's, declined to comment at this time.

"We will have to revisit the issue," Zac Kaye said, noting the statements were made "a long time ago."

Asked what stage the grievance was in, the union's communications officer, Jay Rahn, said, "Nothing's changed," but wouldn't comment any further.

White also refused to comment on the grievance, saying it's a personnel issue.

Noble, nevertheless, said the administration responded to his complaint, which was filed Dec. 2, by telling the union it hadn't violated the contract. The union then sought the advice of a lawyer.

"So, I'm assuming they are going to take this to arbitration," he said, noting he was told the legal opinion was "quite strong."

The professor maintained the purpose of his document was to draw attention to the foundation, and he feels it's been successful.

"So, they have not challenged anything I wrote in that document," Noble said. "This is called ad hominem attack, and that's very telling."

Stephen Hui is a founding editor of Seven Oaks.

 

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