Court rejects students' request for injunction against McGill encampment

MONTREAL — Pro-Palestinian activists who have pitched their tents on the McGill University campus scored a legal victory on Wednesday when a Quebec judge rejected a request for an injunction to stop their protest.

Two students at the Montreal university had asked Quebec Superior Court to order protesters to move at least 100 metres from school buildings, saying their presence had created an environment of aggression and left them feeling unsafe.

Justice Chantal Masse ruled Wednesday that the students failed to demonstrate that their access to the school was being blocked or that they would be unable to write their final exams. She also took into account statements from the protesters who argued that such an order would have a "chilling effect" on their right to free speech.

"The court is of the opinion that the balance of inconveniences leans to the side of the protesters, whose freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly would be seriously affected," she wrote. The evidence of harm to the students, on the other hand, is "rather limited, arising more from subjective worries and discomfort rather than precise and serious worries for their safety."

Masse said that while some of the slogans and statements attributed to the protesters are "troubling," there's no indication that they constitute direct threats towards the plaintiffs.

In the injunction request heard Tuesday, the students submitted evidence of slogans such as “Intifada,” “From the sea to the river, Palestine will live forever,” and “All Zionists are terrorists” being chanted or printed on banners as examples of the "hostile, aggressive and violent" atmosphere created by the protesters.

Masse noted that different groups have different interpretations of what those slogans mean. However, she extended what she called an "invitation" to the protesters “to review the words they use during protests and dispense with using those that are susceptible to being perceived, rightly or wrongly, as calls to violence or as antisemitic statements.”

Several dozen tents have been pitched on the school's lower field since Saturday, following a wave of similar protests on campuses across the United States linked to the Israel-Hamas war. Pro-Palestinian protesters have also set up encampments at the University of British Columbia's Point Grey campus and at the University of Ottawa.

On Wednesday, a group of protesters began setting up tents outside a Western University building in London, Ont., the school said in a news release.

McGill University, which decided to remain neutral rather than support the injunction request, has asked for police assistance to help dismantle the camp after failing to persuade the protesters to end what the school says is an illegal action. As of Wednesday, it was unclear how and when officers might intervene. Montreal police said in a statement that they were "continuing to evaluate possible avenues for the future, advocating for a peaceful outcome."

The judge agreed that the campers are illegally occupying university grounds but said it is too soon "to conclude that the situation won’t be resolved adequately and non-violently with a progressive police intervention."

McGill issued a statement saying it was encouraged by the court's finding that the protesters' presence is illegal and its recognition that the university's call for police assistance was "a last resort."

In another statement, McGill president Deep Saini said the school was reaching out to lawyers representing encampment members in an effort to restart negotiations. He reiterated that many of the protesters have no ties with McGill. "This cannot be accepted and will not be allowed," he wrote. "Therefore, the encampment must be dismantled quickly, and this is non-negotiable."

Saini committed to "holding a forum with members of the McGill community to discuss your various demands and any contrary views in a peaceful, respectful, and civilized manner," as long as the protesters end the camp immediately.

The protesters have previously said they have no intention of dismantling their tents until the school, as well as nearby Concordia University, divests from companies that protesters claim are "profiting from genocide." They also want McGill to cut ties with Israeli academic institutions.

Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal-based human rights lawyer and associate professor at McGill, said she wasn't surprised the judge rejected the injunction request.

The decision reflects "that there has been no evidence of any activity by the protesters that would raise the possibility that this was not peaceful," such as threats, violence or blocking access to buildings, she said. And that view appears to be shared by Montreal police, who have thus far not seen the need to step in, she added.

"As long as the people involved maintain their peaceful approach to these kinds of protests or assemblies, which can include things like encampments, then it's not in the best interests of either the courts or the police to intervene," Eliadis said in a phone interview.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2024.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press