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Chief Justice J. Michael Macdonald finds that TMU law students’ pro-Palestinian letter did not breach school’s code of conduct

The Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association (“CMLA”) calls on the legal community to review and apply the recommendations from the Honourable J. Michael MacDonald’s Independent Report of the Toronto Metropolitan University External Review (the “Report”).

For months, students around the world have been protesting and voicing their opposition to the Israeli government’s actions in Palestine. In Ontario, numerous students at LASL signed a letter of unequivocal support for Palestine and all forms of Palestinian resistance (the “Letter”).

Following extensive backlash by the legal community, TMU engaged retired Chief Justice MacDonald to thoroughly review the Letter to assess whether the student signatories breached the Student Code of Non-Academic Conduct. The CMLA is grateful for the opportunity to provide insights and comments as part of this review.

On May 31, 2024, the Report was published and concluded that the Letter was not anti-Semitic and that the signatories did not breach TMU’s Student Code of Non-Academic Conduct.

This Report’s findings and recommendations are critical to the defence of freedom of speech in Canada, especially pro-Palestinan expression. The Report clarified that it is not anti-Semitic to “criticize the actions and policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians” or to apply concepts from international law, “like colonialism, genocide, and occupation in discussions of and statements about the government of Israel” (Page 73).

The Backlash

The ensuing backlash faced by the student signatories was of a magnitude that the CMLA had never witnessed before. For many students, signing this Letter came at a tremendous cost both professionally and personally.

The Report extensively documents some of the backlash against the student signatories, many of whom were racialized individuals, including many visibly Muslim women.

  • Students were “doxxed” and exposed to severe risks, as their names, photographs and contact information were being circulated online, including on X/Twitter, LinkedIn, and a website called “HonestReporting Canada.” (Page 56)

  • B’nai Brith Canada called for the expulsion of the students labeling them as “terror apologists.” (Page 36)

  • Commenters on news stories and opinion pieces called for the students to be named, expelled, and deported - implicitly making assumptions about the students’ nationalities and citizenship status. (Page 36)

  • Social media platforms were replete with similar sentiments, including from lawyers. The Report found these were too numerous to detail. (Page 37)

  • Many students received disturbing and threatening emails, phone calls, and messages including threats of violence and death, as well as graphic videos and images. (Page 105)

The Report also confirmed a previously-undisclosed directive from the Ministry of the Attorney General (“MAG”) that affected students’ eligibility for summer law student positions. MAG required student applicants to attest, in writing, that they either did not sign the Letter, or to explain why they did so.

The Report noted that MAG’s attestation requirement had a particular and significant impact on students, leading to a loss of mentorship opportunities and feelings of betrayal.

The Report’s Recommendations to the Legal Community

In response to these actions (and others like them), the Report issued a powerful direction to the legal community:

The lawyers who fuelled the backlash against the respondent students displayed the same kind of response for which they have criticized the students: using insensitive and harsh words, rushing to judgment, and not acknowledging opposing viewpoints. They have talked about the importance of civility and respectful dialogue, without extending those empathetic sentiments to the students involved. We would encourage them, going forward, to apply their experience and wisdom in ways that support LASL [Lincoln Alexander School of Law] students, whether through mentorship opportunities, placements, or longer-term positions (Page 169)

CMLA’s Call to Action for the Legal Community

The CMLA encourages the legal community to review the Report in full and to recognize how community leaders targeted and adversely impacted students for expressing solidarity with the principles of social justice and advocacy.

The CMLA calls on all legal employers to:

  • Abandon all “blacklists” (and corresponding attestations) regarding political expression and ensure that students and lawyers are treated equally and fairly under the law;

  • Prohibit disciplinary measures against students or staff who engage in pro-Palestinian expression, such as by signing letters or engaging in protests;

  • Take measures to prevent and discipline lawyers who dox, target, and/or threaten students or lawyers, or attempt to do so; 

  • Commit to undertaking training on anti-Palestinian racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism;

  • Collect, retain, and share data related to hiring, retention and promotion of Arab, Muslim, and/or Palestinian students and lawyers within firms/organizations;

  • Engage with equity-seeking groups - like the CMLA and the Canadian Arab Lawyers Association - when seeking counsel and advice on related issues

Finally, the CMLA urges the legal community to reflect on the findings and recommendations of the Report and to take meaningful action to support students advocating for justice and human rights. The legal profession must uphold the principles of fairness, equity, and respect for all individuals, regardless of their viewpoints or backgrounds.

Husein Panju 

Chair, Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association 

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