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How ‘sanitized’ of politics should campuses like SFU be?

A group of SFU students putting up posters for a pro-Palestine week of action say security followed them and took their posters down, drawing questions about how “sanitized” politics on campus should be.

The students were putting up posters for Palestinian action week last week, including in areas not sanctioned by the university.

Simon Fraser Student Society vice-president of equity and sustainability Marie Haddad said a line was crossed by university staff when they reportedly followed the students around.

“The appropriate mechanisms in response to a breach are to remove the posters, full stop. However, Palestinian activists and allies (because of the specific issue at hand) were not only harassed by university staff and told that they should stop,” Haddad wrote in a statement to the Beacon.

If they didn’t stop, a university staff member reportedly told the students they would “be in deep shit,” particularly noting that it was convocation week.

The students were then followed off-campus and ID’d by campus security, according to Haddad and a student involved in the postering, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions from the university.

The student involved in the postering said the incident brought up issues of how the university space should be used. More specifically, the student said the actions of university staff are indicative of a “sanitized” environment on campus.

Students feeling intimidated

In an emailed statement to Burnaby Beacon, SFU said, “We have checked with SFU campus public safety and facilities, and they have not been contacted by any students about the incident that you mention.”

The university added that it “respects the right to free speech and peaceful protest on campus.”

“To limit the amount of materials put up on walls and to prevent damage to property, the university has a clear policy around notices, posters and advertisements,” reads the statement.

“University staff and contractors will remove materials that are posted elsewhere around campus, as required by the policy.”

Haddad said the actions had the effect of intimidating students and was disproportionate to the policy they were breaching.

The students’ union executive said she believes the excessive action was “clearly to suppress dissent due to the specific content of the material in this case, due to anti-Palestinian bias.”

The student involved in the postering said the staff members, both in security and facilities, were largely sympathetic to their cause. However, that student believed the overreaction was tied to a culture created by the university’s policy, calling it a “sanitization” of university spaces.

‘Sanitized’ politics on campus

Haddad said sanitizing the university space— “as in, [ridding] the space radical action”—is not a new issue, pointing to another recent example.

Late last month, SFU students spoke out against the university’s administration for warning of “corrective and/or disciplinary action” against students involved with a climate crisis-related mural.

Students with the SFU350 environmental group created a climate justice mural at convocation mall with washable paint. The university then sent out a letter to the Simon Fraser Student Society and SFU350, saying the was created without the “necessary approvals.”

The university later dropped its misconduct allegations against the students involved in creating the mural.

“So, clearing the area of student initiatives, and activism for the reason of convocation has happened previously,” Haddad said.

She added that it can often be easier for people in places of privilege to be more concerned about “the stone that the mural was painted on, or the image of the university when Palestinian posters were put up” than about the issues themselves.

“There are folks who are starving and don’t have a place to lay due to drought, forest fires, and increasing temperatures,” Haddad said.

“There are others who are traumatized for the rest of their lives because they’ve seen their homes shattered because of bombings, or their families snatched away from Israeli forces due to the continued occupation of Palestinian lands and the genocide of Palestinian people.”

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