A ray of light for academic freedom of expression
Tel Aviv University is not entitled to demand that students pay for security as a condition for approving a "demonstration, assembly, or political discussion," the Tel Aviv District Court ruled this week regarding a lawsuit that ACRI filed on behalf of members of Meretz's student chapter.
Toward the beginning of 2016, Meretz's university chapter sought to hold a meeting with the organization Breaking the Silence. The student dean approved of the activity, but the university's security unit demanded that the students pay 800 shekels for four private security guards, in addition to standard security on campus. In response to an appeal submitted by ACRI, the deputy rector explained that the demand for increased security was made in light of the public's tendency toward incitement against Breaking the Silence.
Due to the timing, chapter members paid the money under protest, and the event took place as scheduled. The students then turned to the court to instruct the university not to condition public activity on payment for security.
Attorneys Avner Pinchuk and Sharona Eliyahu-Chay of ACRI, who represented the students, claimed that the university's policy sets a "price tag" for freedom of expression: the demand for payment constitutes a "sanction" on opinions that deviate from the mainstream, and award violence and bullying intended to silence such opinions. On the other hand, the university claims that it respects and encourages students' freedom of expression, but is not obliged to budget or finance realization of that right.
Justice Gershon Gontovnik wrote in his ruling that the devotion to freedom of expression is a "fundamental matter" in academia: "In the framework of training among the university community, it is necessary not only to strive toward studying theories of knowledge... Exposure to different opinions must be permissible for those interested, along with expression of opinions regarding timely current events; to listen to and express opinions; to think, debate, and act." He added that "when mutual respect and tolerance are not taken for granted, the academic community must deepen its commitment to all of these, in the framework of training the future generation of our society."
This was also reflected in the Student Rights Law, which determines an obligation to allow students to exercise freedom of expression. Although the law does not deny the university the power to demand payment from organizers of events and demonstrations, such a demand must be explicitly stated in the institution's regulations. Tel Aviv University regulations do not include the imposition of a duty of payment on organizers of public activity, and thus the court ruled that it is precluded from doing so.
Judge Gontovnik called on the university to conduct soul-searching and hold a hearing in which "all those concerned make their voices heard," in order to establish rules regarding exercising freedom of expression within its boundaries. He made it clear that even if the university deems that fees may be charged for various events in the future, it is not permissible to charge more for a controversial event.
Attorney Avner Pinchuk: "The ruling is a ray of light during a period wherein freedom of expression and academic freedom are under attack. Bullying and attempts to silence threaten not only students with 'atypical' opinions, but also the university itself. The heads of universities must stand firmly, not giving in to threats and fulfilling their purpose as a beacon of freedom of thought and expression."
Proposal (Tel Aviv) 7462-03-17 Attorneys: Avner Pinchuk, Sharona Eliyahu-Chay