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McGill offers 'forum' with protesters after judge dismisses injunction request

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Calling it "non-negotiable," McGill University's president says the pro-Palestinian encampment on the lower field "must be dismantled quickly."

In a letter to the McGill community, Deep Saini said while he supports the right of members of the McGill community to protest and express their views by legal means, "no one, let alone individuals from outside McGill, has the right to set up an encampment on the University's property."

His letter comes hours after a judge rejected a request from two McGill University students for a court injunction to limit where protesters can go on campus. The plaintiffs who sought the injunction had argued the pro-Palestinian encampment on the school's lower field created a "dangerous, hostile, aggressive and violent environment."

However, in her ruling, Justice Chantal Masse wrote that two students failed to demonstrate that their access to the school was being blocked or that they would be unable to write their final exams. The judge 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."

After the ruling was issued, Saini said in his letter that he has also offered to hold a "forum" to discuss the protesters' demands "if members of the McGill community in the encampment permanently leave the encampment immediately."

Jewish groups to launch counter-protest

Meanwhile, Jewish groups are planning to launch a counter-protest on Thursday at McGill.

A poster shared on social media calls on people to "demand that McGill University enforces its policies and to stand against Jew-hatred on campus. Never again is now."

The counter-protest is scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m. near the Roddick Gates, just a few feet away from the encampment.

Injunction sought to ban protests within 100 metres of university

The plaintiffs had sought an immediate end to protests within 100 metres of any McGill University building to ensure students could access the facilities.

"There are Canadian values, there are Quebec values, but they are not the values of hate, they are not the values of intimidation, they are not the values of harassment," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Neil Oberman, on Tuesday. "No Canadian, no Québécois will tolerate that or accept it and neither should the court."

But Justice Masse ruled that some the statements and slogans used on campus did not constitute a direct threat toward the plaintiffs, though she did invite protesters to consider using different language. 

"It is premature, at this stage, to conclude that the situation will not be resolved adequately and non-violently with progressive police intervention, which a court order would not necessarily encourage," the judgment from Justice Chantal Masse reads.

McGill: Protesters are 'illegally occupying' the field

In a statement, McGill University reiterated it did not seek the injunction but was named as an interested party.

"We are encouraged by the judge's finding that 'the demonstrators ... are illegally occupying the premises by camping there. However, it must be emphasized that McGill University, contrary to the plaintiffs' claims, was proactive, applied the process it set out, tried to negotiate an agreement for a progressive dismantling with the respect of certain conditions, gave warnings in the absence of an agreement and, finally, called for police assistance as a last resort, in order to put an end to this situation.'"

Montreal police said it is reviewing the judge's ruling. A spokesperson wrote in an email on Wednesday to CTV News, "We are continuing to evaluate possible avenues for further action while advocating a peaceful outcome."

A lawyer for the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU) argued in court that blocking free speech in such a large area of downtown Montreal is wrong.

"It's abusive because basically what it's asking for is to block out a big part of downtown to all protests, so peaceful protests, protests of any kind," said Sibel Ataogul, the lawyer representing the SSMU. "For us, that's an egregious violation of the fundamental freedoms that we enjoy in Canada and in Quebec and in Montreal."

Demonstrators started camping out on the school's grounds last weekend to demand the university divest from funds they claim are connected to Israel.

They say they want McGill to divest from Israeli companies it says are "complicit in the occupation of Palestine."

They say they also want the school to cut academic ties with Israeli institutions and denounce Israel's offensive in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

"We want to make sure that our demands are met so we are ready to leave when they take us seriously and treat us as equals and not just as mere students who are acting silly," said one protester who did not want to be identified.

The Israeli offensive has led to more than 34,000 Palestinian deaths, according to the local health ministry.

The encampment in Montreal is one of a wave of similar protests across university campuses in the United States linked to the Israel-Hamas war.

With files from The Canadian Press

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